Margaret Millar rediscovered

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday January 31, 2018
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After my mother died, I started rereading Agatha Christie religiously. The presence of a corpse was reassuring, as was Agatha's insistence that murder wasn't nice. Most importantly, Christie was at pains to show that the England that had been, in 1920 when she first published, was no longer in 1952, the year of her genius play "The Mousetrap." Things change, the ground shifts under your feet, only fools cling to the trappings of yesteryear. Out of the past now comes Canadian mystery writer Margaret Millar in a multiple omnibus edition, the seven-volume "Collected Millar" (Syndicate Press, $99.99).

Reprinting a dead woman's prose? I assumed I'd only ever find her ilk, female mystery-writers other than Christie, at used bookstores. I'd first stumbled across Millar in the rummage rack at Aardvark Books, hesitating madly before spending $5 on a 1975 Avon reprint of "The Listening Walls" (1959). I was surprised and amused to read such a sharp portrait of clueless rich white California women slumming South of the Border in a tourist trap, written from the inside, not as objects, but as subjects driving themselves mad with their own pettiness. The ending will blow your mind.

"The Listening Walls" is one of five novels bundled into Volume 3 of the Collected, entitled "The Master at Her Zenith," available from the publisher online for $15. The spine shows a housewife holding a knife behind her back, part of a pulpy panorama of mayhem visually unifying all seven volumes. One of life's greatest pleasures is to read pulp in the format for which it was written, spurred on by sexist, homicidal cover art usually more thrilling than the prose it purports to illustrate. Why buy a bargain tome? Because the novels are accompanied by contextualizing intros and put into perspective as an oeuvre. Someone ought to do this for Christie. No. For Ethel Lina White.

Publisher Paul Oliver says he "launched Syndicate out of an interest in restoring remarkable literature that has been lost. I used to own a bookstore where I handled antiquarian and used books as well as new. Over the years I'd encounter works covered with praise - a well-known author's blurb or a famous translator - and yet out of print. Millar was one of those writers." What a nice man. Or is he? "There's an edge to Margaret Millar that I really enjoy. She's a meticulous plotter with a brilliant sense for creating suspense, but really she had a keen eye and ear for human frailty born of vanity. Her books wear a sneer that I enjoy."

Yes, that's it. Millar sneers at her characters from the inside, because they're versions of her self, and of the women and men she knows and holds in contempt. She deconstructs her own class, or the class she came from before taking a nosedive into writing psychological thrillers, or the class she observed from her niche in Santa Barbara. She uses the tropes of Noir as the outer limits of societal breakdown, or social malaise, or cultural wasteland. Under her pen sexism, racism, homophobia, and the seven deadly sins impinge on the supposedly perfect, enviable, sunshine-filled, materialistic, vacuous, moronic lifestyle of post-war boom California. At her best, she writes flashingly poetic, insightful phrases.

Some people consider "Beast in View" (1955), also in Volume 3, her masterpiece. Maybe I read it too fast. Maybe I've been reading too much Jim Thompson, if that's possible. Anyway, I was dismayed by the homosexuals, how sad and grotesque they were, how they appeared as brief warnings of non-viable life choices, undeveloped glimpses of horror. However, in a novel analyzing the mental breakdown of a young woman utterly isolated in her lifeless ivory tower, glimpses would be all you'd get. This is a portrait of the closet that dare not speak its name. The repressed and repressive self is the "beast in view" in the mirror, a predator with impeccably genteel camouflage.

Since my mother died, I've read all of Christie, and discovered they are far more incisive, deep, and broad-minded than their brainless filmed versions. This discovery encouraged me to seek out other writers of the despised genre, some of whom were translated by Hitchcock, some of whom were women. There's a pullulating mass of wonderful mid-century writing out there, smarter, subtler, more subversive than fit the camera's eye or limited attention spans. Margaret Millar is one of those writers, along with Charlotte Armstrong, Ursula Curtiss, and Ethel Lina White, who have walked me down dark passages in my own psyche I never guessed they knew were there.

Canadian mystery writer Margaret Millar on Hendry's Beach, in a photo taken by her husband, Ken Millar, AKA Ross Macdonald. Photo: Courtesy Syndicate Press