FIRE WILL FREEZE (1944) by Margaret Millar


This year marks the centenary of the birth of Margaret Millar (1915-1994), easily one of the best suspense writers of the 50s and 60s. To celebrate (no that I need much of an excuse) I decided to pick up this snowbound mystery, her fifth novel and her first without a series character, one of the few of hers that I had not read previously. We begin with a group of passengers heading for a Canadian ski lodge stuck in a broken down bus. The driver heads out but never returns, so the passengers go into the storm …

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“If there’s a mystery I want to keep it a mystery. The only thing to do in a place like this is to get inside a room with somebody you can trust, put the furniture in front of the door and be prepared to yell like hell,”

The passengers – including a rascally adventurer with a pistol in his holster; a snoop who is forever complaining that somebody else, preferably a man, should do what she says; a would-be poet and his voluminous sponsor; an energetic hardboiled young dame who make a living as a dancer; a couple at an (emotional) crossroad; a graduate with an interest in psychology and her forgiving father, etc. – eventually get in sight of a large old house. However, before they reach the door they are shot at by persons unknown! None the less, they eventually make it inside and meet the mistress of the house, the rather unhinged Miss Frances Rudd and her nurse, Floraine. Before the night is out a cat will have its throat cut, the remains of the driver’s uniform will be found in the basement, one person will freeze to death after falling from a balcony, another will be strangled and another shot at point-blank range. Yes, this is a comedy …

“I agree, there’s nothing like a good book when you find yourself cooped up with one, maybe two, homicidal maniacs, and a cold storage corpse.”


A cross between The Old Dark House (courtesy of J.B. Priestley’s Benighted) and Stella Gibbons’ bizarre classic, Cold Comfort Farm, this proves to be a highly eccentric performance from Millar. Her interest in abnormal psychology is very much in evidence here, if not especially convincing as it is all pretty strident or used for comic relief. What is well and truly upfront is her sense of humour as this excursion into grotesquerie is written with tongue well and truly in its cheek. It makes for a highly entertaining read as the trappings of the darkly lit house are laid on with a trowel, what with assorted screams in the night, several madmen on the loose, and dead bodies being found in unexpected places. I will say though, in fairness, that while I did enjoy this, I don’t think anyone is likely to mistake this for one of her major efforts, even from her early, less well-known work of the 1940s. The characterisation is very exaggerated and consequently impossible to take seriously (though the uneasy attraction between the bossy Isobel and the grumpy Crawford is nicely done). Also, which was a bit of a surprise with this author, the plot does turn out to be a bit thin. Indeed, Millar shows her hand pretty early on and while all the various elements do eventually slot in respectably, the book doesn’t really ever generate much in the way of dramatic momentum. But as a sort of Gothic comedy about murder and mayhem, I enjoyed it quite a bit and there are a few surprises along the way too.

Here is a complete checklist of Millar mystery books (she also wrote other sorts of fiction and non-fiction too):

  • The Invisible Worm (1941)
  • The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942)
  • The Devil Loves Me (1942)
  • Wall of Eyes (1943)Millar-Do-Evil-in-Return-Dell
  • Fire Will Freeze (1944)
  • The Iron Gates [aka Taste of Fears] (1945)
  • Do Evil in Return (1950) – read my review here
  • Rose’s Last Summer (1952)
  • Vanish in an Instant (1952)
  • Beast in View (1955)
  • An Air That Kills [aka The Soft Talkers] (1957)
  • The Listening Walls (1959)
  • A Stranger in My Grave (1960)
  • How Like an Angel (1962)
  • The Fiend (1964) – read my review here
  • Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)
  • Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976)
  • The Murder of Miranda (1979)
  • Mermaid (1982)
  • Banshee (1983)
  • Spider Webs (1986)
  • The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries (Crippen & Landru, 2004)

This book has been reviewed extensively elsewhere and I recommend that you see what Patrick wrote about it (especially as he liked it much more than I did) for his blog, At the Scene of the Crime.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘country house’ category:


***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Canada, Friday's Forgotten Book, Margaret Millar. Bookmark the permalink.

69 Responses to FIRE WILL FREEZE (1944) by Margaret Millar

  1. tracybham says:

    This is one of four mysteries by Millar that I have, but seeing your review I am thinking it won’t be the first one I read. I do want to read it but I don’t want to start with an unusual example of her work.

    • Fair enough Travy, it isn;t very representative – any over her books published between Beast in View (1955) and The Fiend (1964) see her at her considerable best.

      • tracybham says:

        Interesting. All the books I have are before or after those dates. I have read some of her books but the only one I remember specifically is A Stranger in My Grave. I will be trying to get all of them eventually anyway.

        • A Stranger in My Grave is a very good one in my view Tracy – I should add that the 1955 to 1964 is the traditional feeling about what her best period was – other may very well vary and I think the beeoks she published in the 70s and early 80s were well worth it – but then I’m a big fan.

          • Brian Busby says:

            I agree with Cavershamragu that Fire Will Freeze isn’t very representative. In fact, of the seven Millars I’ve read it trails the others by a fair distance. The others – Wall of Eyes, The Iron Gates, Vanish in an Instant, An Air That Kills, Beast in View and The Fiend – all jostle for first place. Don’t make me choose!

          • Hi Brian – thanks very much for all the great feedback and I would agree with your sentiments about the other 7 books 100%! (PS sorry you ended up having to submit your comments twice but WordPress decided it might be spam – I have told it off!)

          • tracybham says:

            Wall of Eyes and The Iron Gates are the ones I will be reading first. I have two wonderful paperback editions of Iron Gates. Which I probably first saw at Brian’s blog.

          • Look forward to reading what you make of these Tracy 🙂

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Fine review as ever, Sergio. One of the things I like about Millar’s work is the way she explores psychology. I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read this one; but her series novels really are tops in that sense. And I respect her for doing something unusual with her writing.

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have not read this book.
    However, I am currently reading Beast In View, a novel by the same author, which I am finding very suspenseful. It was adapted as a TV episode in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour( Season 2, Episode 21).

    • Beast in View was her breakthrough classic – really hope you enjoy it. The TV version couldn’t hope to do it justice but again is certainly worth a comprison – it’s currently available online here (in 2 parts.

      • Brian Busby says:

        The original adaptation is certainly worth a watch, if only to admire screenwriter James Bridges’ talent. Oh, and Joan Hackett’s, too. There’s a second Alfred Hitchcock Presents Beast in View dating from the ‘eighties. It’s a scream – but not in the way you’d think. As bad as the other is good, it bears precious little resemblance to the novel. If interested, I’ve compared the two with the novel here.

        • Brill – thanks very much for the link Brian, not seen the other version – and yes, I agree, Bridges wrote some terrific scripts for the Hitchcock anthology and is, I think, a little under-regarded as a director

          • Brian Busby says:

            I was recently reminded of Bridges’ talent when Patti Abbott praised The Paper Chase. You’re right that his ability as a director is under appreciated.

          • It’s such a shame that the original cut of Mike’s Murder doesn’t seem to be available though as it sound so much more adventurous than what we have, which is well made but which does lack dynamism in the narrative.

  4. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve heard good things about Margaret Millar in general, and it’s been a looong time since I read her (cannot remember anything, unfortunately, as it’s pre-record-keeping days). But, as you suggest, perhaps not the book to start with. Which would you recommend?

  5. Colin says:

    I haven’t read anything by Millar yet and maybe this isn’t rated as her best but I sure like the sound of it – snowbound settings, especially old dark houses, get me interested right away.

    • I agree Colin, it’s classic mystery territory but inevitably ripe for parody, which is where this one partly heads, though not entirely successfully. If you can, get How Like and Angel – I think it’s my favourite (and makes a fascinating comparison with the ‘Ross Macdonald’ books by her husband Ken Millar), but I’m not sure she ever wrote a really duff book (mind you, there are a couple of hers I have still left to read, including her last …)

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I haven’t read it either. But want to. She is about my favorite writer of domestic suspense.

    • Thanks Patti – I imitially had trouble finding an affordable edition but ended up getting a hardback omnibus edition that also included the wonderful Carter Dickson novel, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, so lucked out there!

  7. My thoughts are identical to Patti’s! Great review.

  8. Not read this one, but have liked all of her I have read, so will get to this one some time, even if it is not one of her very best.

  9. Yvette says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read any Margaret Millar and it seems as though I’ve been missing out on a terrific writer – judging from the comments and your review, Sergio. Even if this book wasn’t your favorite Millar, it still sounds like something I’d enjoy in the proper mood. 🙂 My library doesn’t have ANY Millar books – I checked immediately. So I’ll have to look around online. Thanks for another wonderful review, kiddo.

    • Thanks Yvette – I think, I hope, you’ll really like her work. She was very smart, and had a wicked sense of humour and could construct very clever plots. A good investment I’d say.

  10. patrickohl says:

    Sergio, thanks very much for your mention of my review of this book. I really enjoyed it, although I also remember thinking the plot very thin. The reasons for a couple of the plot points were very arbitrary. Millar got better with the plot element of her mysteries, but for atmosphere and characters, I think this is a fine book.

    • I really enjoyed your review Patrick and always great to have your feedback here at Fedora – I enjoyed the book mainly as a grotesque comedy (but hey, I’ve never been through a Canadian, so what do I know 🙂 )

  11. Sergio, I haven’t read Margaret Millar and though I got to know of her only in my post-blogging days, I haven’t seen her novels in my neck of the woods. I wonder if they’re available as ebooks, although I doubt very much.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    I’m woefully behind on reading Millar, particularly when compared to how much I’ve read of her husband’s work…she, and Sanxay Holding, and no little Marijane Meaker and Patricia Highsmith atmong so many others await me.

    • They’re both great authors Todd! On the other hand, I have yet to try Meaker (though I do now have her memoir of Highsmith, which i bought on your say so and will actually read it one day, you’ll see!).

  13. Like Todd, I’m way behind on reading Millar’s novels (although I own a lot of them). I have read all of Ross Macdonald’s novels.

  14. jhegenbe says:

    Great pick! I gave her and her husband, what’shename, a cameo in my novel, Superfall. The book will be published later this year.

  15. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have finished Beast In View. It is quiet good with a stunning ending, though the clues are there.
    I have also seen the TV episode. However, reading the novel first and knowing the final twist spoilt it for me.
    I have since obtained How Like An Angel.

    • Beast in View has, I think, a disadvantage now in that its very clever twist, after 60 years, has also been used again several times in better-known books. So glad you think it still bears up. Yes, the TV adaptation is, by comparison, nothing as special. I really hope you like How Like an Angel as much as I did, Santosh – a superbly written amd controlled novel in my view.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        I have got How Like An Angel in the Detective Book Club edition ! It includes 2 other novels Prisoner’s Friend by Andrew Garve and The Five-Day Nightmare by Fredric Brown. I haven’t read any.

  16. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have finished How Like An Angel.
    Superb ! Stunning ending in the last two sentences !

  17. Sarah says:

    I really fancy reading this, despite your 2.5 stars! I’ll look out for it. I think it’s the snowy setting that appeals.

  18. Pingback: Fire Will Freeze (1944) by Margaret Millar – Dead Yesterday

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