How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar
I've always held the opinion that some writers are just too good for the mass market. This is a true of a number of literary writers but it's also true of at least one writer of crime fiction, the late Margret Millar. For all her many deserved awards, she never became the enormous commercial success she deserved to be.
For me she's the single most elegant stylist who ever shaped a mystery story. You revel in her sentences. She used wit and black humor in the direst of novels long before it was fashionable in the genre. And she was a better (and much fairer) bamboozler than Agatha Christie.
I recently reread her How Like and Angel and its richness, its darkness, its perverse wit make me repeat what I've said many times before--if this isn't the perfect mystery novel, it comes damned close.
The story, complex as it becomes is simple in its set-up. Private eye Joe Quinn, having gambled away all his money, begins hitchhiking from Reno to Caifornia. Along the way he sees the Tower, the symbol of a religious cult that eventually offers him not only shelter but a chance to put his skills to use. Sister Blessing asks him to find a man named Patrick O'Gorman. The man is dead. Which makes Quinn suspicious of why she wants him located.
Among its many pleasures is the way this novel, published in the early sixties, anticipates some of the fringe cults that would grow out of the flower power days. There's more than a touch of ole Charlie Manson in the Tower. Millar does world building here--not unlike a science fiction writer at work--giving us a look at a group of varied individuals who have been driven here because they could not cope with the world and its cruelty and deceits. Some are insane, some are sweet and pathetic and a few are diabolical. There is great strangeness here and Millar presents it with poetic force and humor.
The mystery itself is truly baffling. In following it down Quinn goes into a nearby town reconstruct the curious history of O`Gorman. Who was he really? The daylight town scenes contrast with the shadowy ones at the Tower but it is in the daylight that the true darkness of Quinn’s journey is exposed. It always puts me in mind of the end of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane—when Jane escapes the gloom of their house to reach the beach—the searing sunlight crueler to her than anything her sister did. Night suddenly seems a blessing.
Just about everybody who’s ever read Margaret Millar has wondered why she isn’t known at least half as well as her husband Ken Millar/Ross Macdonald. In her own way she was certainly his equal.