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 dark 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 hitchiking 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 they want 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.
I've always argued that the traditional mystery can be used for purposes other than simply whodunit. Here Millar gives us a great novel of character, a wry and not unkind look at people drawn to cults and a dark stunning story of forged lives.