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.