During the 1950s the Canadian author Margaret Millar proved herself, along with Patricia Highsmith, to be arguably the great innovator of the postwar crime and mystery genre. She was certainly crucial stepping stone in the later development of such notable figures as Ruth Rendell. Why isn’t she better remembered?
I offer the following review as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog, which today celebrates Millar’s work. I also submit it as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels by women authors from the Golden Age published pre-1960.
“The slums had pushed ahead like an army of grasshoppers destroying everything that grew in its path. Nothing would ever grow again in that concrete wilderness except people.”
As part of the celebration today into Margaret Millar’s work I thought I would plump for her tenth novel, Do Evil in Return, which is far less well-known and much less frequently reviewed than the batch of books that followed the publication of the Edgar-winning Beast in View in 1955. Her best work offers psychologically well-drawn, basically plausible characters and clever plots that usually deliver a knockout sting in the tale. How does this earlier work measure up? Its protagonist is Charlotte Keating, a general practitioner (known to her friends as ‘Charley’) at a time when female doctors were still a comparative rarity, even in California. As such she has had to be tough and determined and also intelligent and forceful, cool and objective; but she is also someone with a conscience and seems to have empathy to spare. Her one weak spot seems to be her odd decision to fall head over heels in love with Lewis Ballard, a married man, the husband of the neurotic Gwen, one of her patients. He frequently rebukes her for what he thinks is a sentimental approach to people and too tolerant a view of their problems. No, I wasn’t too impressed with him either.
“Poverty and disease had desiccated her mind. Nothing would ever grow there again.”
When she meets the poor and pathetic Violet O’Gorman – separated from her violent husband and pregnant after a one-night stand – she finds herself drawn to her predicament. As a doctor she refuses to help her with an illegal termination but then feels bad when the despairing young woman flees. She tracks her down to the rooming house run by Voss, a seedy and unpleasant man but Violet’s uncle. He says that the young woman can’t see her now, but a neighbour (who goes by the nickname ‘Tiddles’) tells her that he saw the girl being forcibly removed by her uncle and Eddie, her husband. Upon reaching her house Charley is sandbagged, knocked out and her purse stolen. She is sure it was Voss but back at his house she only finds his near-hysterical wife, who like Violet seems to have little or nothing left to live for.
“Someone has just died.” She sipped the cold, bitter syrup left in the bottom of her cup. “I’m glad it’s not me.”
It comes as no surprise when Violet’s body is fished out of the Ocean, an apparent suicide. Things then really start to get complicated and Charley really compromise herself when Voss and Eddie turn up demanding money, threatening to make her liaison with Lewis known. She is tempted to pay but Lewis is outraged and vows he will go deal with it himself. He doesn’t get very far before ‘Tiddles’ is found dead near Voss’ house and Inspector Easter makes his appearance. Sightly resembling Charley, he is clearly smitten with her from very early on and starts making sarcastic references to Lewis – right away we know he would be a much more suitable match for Charley, but she refuses to see sense. Instead she tries to compete with the Inspector, led by an obscure fear that he might somehow be able to destroy her life even though he says that all he wants to do is arrest Voss and Eddie, who have now gone on the run. Poor Charley can feel her carefully constructed life being quickly pulled apart , pursued by Easter’s unwanted and vaguely threatening amorous advances on one side, and feeling increasingly unsure about Lewis, especially after he goes missing suddenly; and then Voss and Eddie’s murdered bodies turn up inside her garage – just what is going on? Is Easter framing her? Is Lewis up to something? What is the role of his business partner Vern?
Mary Roberts Rinehart was nearing the end of her long career as this book was published and one can clearly detect the influence of the mistress of the lady in jeopardy / ‘Had I But Known’ school of suspense. Charley certainly has a knack for arriving at the right place at exactly the right time and then being plunged in considerable danger as a result. But there is also that more modern emphasis on psychoanalysis (amusingly guyed in one scene in which a character makes a comparison with Hitchcock’s popular piece of cod-Freudian psychiatry, Spellbound). Characters do sometimes seem to just sit around and psychoanalyse each other rather than really talk, and Millar would certainly be more subtle in this respect in the future. But, if this is a transitional work from one pre-war tradition to a post-nuclear age, one can also delight in the unadorned but nicely shaded prose, some characteristically strong female characters and a clever plot with a nice, well thought out reversal in the concluding pages. Well worth looking out for.
I’m always impressed with Margaret Millar’s social consciousness in her novels. Whenever I read one of her novels, I find I’m thinking about it days after I finish it.
I agree – it was fascinating to read this fairly early book and see that real interest in social and environmental issues already come through loud and clear. It’s one of the things that she hared most clearly with Ross Macdonald’s output too of course.
I am pretty sure I have never read this one.
Well, I was hoping to pick one that was less likely to be reviewed – indeed, a cursory Google search turned up next to nothing! Thanks for hosting today’s Millar celebration Patti – definitely worthwhile.
Thanks, Sergio. I haven’t read this one yet, but am pleased to see that Stark House returned this one to print a few years ago (coupled with An Air that Kills, my favourite of the Millars I’ve read).
Ah, I didn’t know it had been reprinted too – I’ve got the Lancer reprint, which on the inside proudly proclaims: “Its large sale in the higher priced edition makes possible this inexpensive Lancer reprint.” 60 cents in 1966 …
Sergio: Speaking on behalf of Stark House, I would be happy to introduce you to our line with a couple new review copies. Just send your address to
firstname.lastname@example.org, and it will be done. –Greg Shepard
Thank you very much Greg – that’s just fabulous! E-mail from me coming your way immediately!
In THE INVISIBLE WORM (published in 1941), there is also a female doctor and another female character who suffers from drug addiction and psychological problems. Other than THE BEAST IN VIEW, I had not read any Millar until reading WORM for this week’s FFB. Now that I’m reading all the other reviews, I see certain themes and characters recurring in her works. It makes me wish it were easier to find her books. Perhaps the same publisher who has reprinted some of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s books will do the same for Millar’s. She’s certainly due for a reappraisal.
Thanks for the comments Deb. She was a real master of the psychological mystery – I hadn’t realised her books were hard to get but then I did most of my Millar book shopping about 20 years ago …
I just picked this up yesterday at the library because in doing my own Google search for the least reviewed of Millar’s works I also found that Stark House had reprinted it and I thought that signaled it as one of her more hard edged books knowing the kind of book Stark House likes to reissue. Are you sure we weren’t separated at birth? All this coincidence in our reading/researching/reviewing habits is getting to be a bit too eerie.
Forgive me if I skipped over the plot discussion since I want to discover it all on my own. But always a fine job of what I did read. This is her first crime novel after her three mainstream novels that tended to be domestic melodramas and love stories so that might explain the HIBK aura you picked up on. And thanks for teaching me the term “cod-Freudian” which I gather means falsely Freudian or naively explained Feudian theory. Never knew “cod” meant a hoax or as a verb “to fool.”
Good thinking mate – really look forward to reading your thoughts on this one. It’s clearly an earlier work but it definitely goes the extra mile in terms of plotting, especially as I fell into a trap very early on. Great minds and all that – though in my case, at the end of a very, very long week, the odds are John that I was probably thing of something more piscatorial … no, not really! I knew zilch about Stark House Press until it was mentioned here but i have visited the homepage now (http://www.starkhousepress.com) so this all sounds very intriguing – thanks very much. New thing to learn every single day (thankfully).
Good choice, Sergio, and thank you for a fine review! I can see the kind of mysteries Millar wrote and “innovative” is certainly one way to describe her work. From your review and the eye-catching blurbs, I’d say the lady had a cutting-edge style of writing that instantly engages the reader. I have never read the reclusive Millar before and couldn’t get hold of one for Patti’s FFB. I wonder what it is about some authors, like Millar, whose books are so hard to find. The other day I nearly bought a novel by Patricia Highsmith but it turned out to be in a foreign language. I have a couple of her husband Ross Macdonald’s novels though I’m going to be looking for her books too.
Odd, isn’t it? There’s every indication that for several decades Millar sold very well – in paperback, at least – yet I’ve not seen a single one of her titles at my usual and unusual haunts. It could be that those who know her hold onto her, but then nearly all Millar titles can be found used through online booksellers for a lone dollar.
It is, forgive me, a mystery.
I quite agree Brian – and a frustrating one at that. To a certain extent the lack of a regular series character, and the paucity of movie adaptations even, may in part be responsible – after all, Sayers, Christie, Rendell, PD James have all had the majority of their novels adapted for either film or TV (or both) and even radio – but not Millar. Equally, some of her success were as an innovator and eventually time will catch up with you I suppose. I wonder if that big gap after The Fiend, which coincided with Ross Macdonald increasing success and the decline in their daughter’s well being, may have had an impact. She only returned to regular writing after Macdonald’s stopped being able to write and the death of their daughter, though of course I am allowing myself to draw the kind of conclusion from too superficial evidence that both the Millars would have decried in their work.
Thanks Prashant – Ross Macdonald is a major author of the hardboiled school and I look forward to reading what you think of his work. Millar was well respected in the 50s but for whatever reason her name has faded – let’s hope that will not change with so much new blogging activity!
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I have BEAST IN VIEW and MERMAID of Millar’s, which I enjoyed very much. Based on the evidence of those two novels, she does damaged female characters really well.
She’s a superb novelist Ela – DO EVIL is a minor work but STRANGER IN MY GRAVE and HOW LIKE AN ANGEL in particular a real classics in the field.
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I’m about to re-read this and came to the review here through a link. I’ve also just re-read an article about Margaret Millar that might interest her admirers. It’s called The Dangerous Housewife – google her name and the story will be listed there. It comments on the blank years referred to above, among much else.
Thanks for that Anne – will do!