Monday, October 13, 2008

Forgotten Books: Margaret Millar

In my effort to get people to read Margaret Millar I'm reprinting some comments that the late Tom Piccirilli and I exchanged in e mails via his site The Big Adios.

Finished up Margaret Millar's THE CANNIBAL HEART today and really dug it. Man, she's got such a gothic underpining to her fiction, her writing is just drenched in atmosphere. This was a solid tale of a family renting a beach house from a woman whose husband has recently committed suicide and whose retarded son has recently also died. A touch slow in the opening but soon you get the snaky feeling that all is not right (and don't we all love that?) A lot of flavor and style reminiscent of Shirley Jackson.

Tom, you nailed it with the "gothic" angle. Millar like Shirley Jackson was much enamored of gothic elements the difference being (my theory) is that Jackson and early Capote (his early stuff was pure gothic) etc came out of Faulkner as did so many other Southern writers. Where Millar came out of a very white Northern and mostly middle-class environment. But the results were similar occasionally. Millar, like Jackson, was a tart and sometimes droll social observer though in her later novels I think Millar surpassed Jackson at this.

Ed, I agree about how Millar's sense of the gothic doesn't have that sweaty southern sensibility to it, although I think she early on left behind the white north and gave her gothic a dark southern California feel. Man, southern Cali at the time must've just had such a hook. Both she and (her huisband Ross) Macdonald came out of Canada and just seemed to leave it completely behind. That black Cali mood is reflected in Macdonald's work as well. He gives you the weird gothic families underscored by a hipster PI narrative, whereas Millar focuses on the "un-hip" elements and just pours out the atmosphere. You're right that the droll social commentary comes through, usually where underlying and hidden tension in marriage and family is concerned. I know that Jackson's marriage was rough-going, and her husband had a number of flings. I wonder if all the disatisfied married characters in Millar's work parallel her own marriage. Damn, just more reason to read the bio.


Tom Nolan's biograph of Ross Macdonald (Millar) is a masterpiece.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy L. Hughes. Not a bad era for hard-boiled ladies.

August West said...

Unfortunately, interest in the great works of Margaret Millar is fading. In another generation it might be totally gone. It's shameful...

I'll add Dolores Hitchens to Patti's three above.

Hugh Abramson said...

The Cannibal Heart was originally published as main-stream fiction. Some years ago when I was reprinting Maggie's work, she suggested I take a look at it, that it really was a crime novel. After I read it, I called her to tell her how much I liked it, and that we would be adding it to our line. In passing, I mentioned that it reminded me a little of Charlotte Armstrong which Maggie took as a great compliment. (By the way, has anyone noticed that Mischief contains a great deal of noir?)

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

It's Dorothy B. Hughes, and one would need to add Vera Caspary to such a list.

_Clues_ vol. 25, no. 3, was a theme issue devoted to Margaret Millar, including articles on Millar and Macdonald (by Tom Nolan); on race in Millar's Tom Aragon series; psychology in Sayers and Millar; an essay (by Dean James) on _Beast in View_, _An Air That Kills_, and _Do Evil in Return_; and a superb commentary (by Bob Barnard) on _The Murder of Miranda_ and _Spider Webs_.

Bennett Cerf said some highly complimentary things about Millar's _The Iron Gates_ in _Dear Donald, Dear Bennett_. For Armstrong fans, there is a new biography out by Rick Cypert.

Martin Edwards said...

Millar is one of my favourite American writers, though I haven't read The Cannibal Heart. A Stranger in my Grave is especially brilliant.

Lake Andrews said...

Thanks for giving me some ideas of Millar books to look for. Found her in Murderess Ink.

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