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She Kept Us in Suspense

15 April 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘A great many women feel trapped after they have their first child,” a social-worker character says in Margaret Millar’s 1952 novel “Rose’s Last Summer,” “especially talented and ambitious women. . . . Most of them eventually adjust themselves, in one way or another.”

Margaret Millar (1915-94), who had her first (and only) child in Toronto, in 1939 at the age of 24, adjusted initially by giving her infant daughter over to the care of female relatives and taking to bed with an imagined (she would later confess) heart ailment. There she read dozens of detective stories brought home for her from the library by her husband, Kenneth, who would soon take a job teaching high school in Kitchener, Ontario. The new mother, already frustrated in her youthful ambition to be a writer, threw one of these novels against a wall and vowed: “I could do better than that!”

In two bedridden weeks, she produced a handwritten draft of what would be the first work in a 27-book oeuvre.

The entirety of that lifework is now gathered in Collected Millar, a densely packed set of seven mostly omnibus volumes by the author who more or less invented the mystery subgenre dubbed “psychological suspense.” Her works would be ranked by German author-critic Alfred Andersch with those of Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith. Her admiring readers would include Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Truman Capote. In 1983, she was named a “Grand Master” by the Mystery Writers of America.

. . . .

In the golden age of mysteries preceding their careers, it was thought an impossibility (with certain notorious exceptions) for an author to give glimpses into the mind of the villain without either cheating the reader or spoiling the story’s suspense. Yet without depicting the interior life of the criminal, how could mystery fiction move beyond the “whodunit” stage?

Millar found her solution in having plot unfold through the points of view of several characters, any of whom might conceivably be culpable of, or vulnerable to, crimes. With this enlarged emphasis on victims and potential perpetrators, the traditional detective figure became less central. For the most part, Millar would write non-series, stand-alone books.

Her best-known novel is probably the Edgar Award-winning 1955 work Beast in View,” in which a well-to-do Beverly Hills woman, Helen Clarvoe, is menaced by telephone calls from a female she is certain means to destroy her. But how much faith should be put in Helen’s perceptions, given her propensity for such Freudian slips as, writing in a seemingly friendly letter to her mother: “I hope that all is hell with you.” Is it Helen perhaps who is her own worst enemy? With the powerfully effective “Beast in View,” Millar pioneered (albeit in third-person prose) the currently ubiquitous device of the unreliable narrator.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Books in General

4 Comments to “She Kept Us in Suspense”

  1. Her “husband Kenneth” aka Ross Macdonald.

  2. Good thing I keep a bottle of Tylenol next to my desk.

    Yet another tale of “If you want to be a successful writer, you have to be a self-centered, lying, antisocial [insert non-PG word of your choice].”


  3. my 02, hard to understand except as a medical condition of post partum severe depression that causes fugue states, lack of energy to be close to one’s young, to create delusional fantasies, a general massive disturbance of the new mother, and affecting all around her. Plenty of true-story self reports by women about ups and downs with/toward first child or second or tenth, but usually they dont prevaricate dramatically, creating falsified illnesses etc, unless something else is drastically awry.

  4. Actually, it’s Agatha Christie who first exploited unreliable narrators on a large scale, as well as telling the story through several POVs which included the murderer’s. Margaret Millar did some really nice things with these devices, but she didn’t think them up. (Heck, even Christie didn’t think them up.)

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