Forgotten Books: Mermaid by Margaret Millar
One of Margaret Millar's final novels is also perhaps her most brutal.
Cleo Jasper is a beautiful but sightly retarded twenty-two year old woman who has been taken care of by her wealthy and pompous older brother Hilton since the death of their parents. One day she stops in to attorney-detective Tom Aragon's office to inquire about the rights of slightly retarded people. Aragon was one of Millar's few series leads, an honorable young man trying to move his career forward while worrying about his marriage coming apart. Cleo's beauty and gentle confusion give him respite from his worries so he allows himself to be momentarily transfixed by her.
He doesn't hear her name until until her brother Hilton appears and informs Aragon that she is missing. It seems he caught her late at night having sex (she'd been a virgin) in his college age son's bedroom. He was so angry he kicked him out of the house. In sympathy Cleo left later in the middle of the night.
I used the word "brutal" because this is a breathtaking suspense novel in which a large cast of characters is aggrieved but none find solace. The major characters are Hilton's wife who resents how her husband has always considered his sister more important than anyone else in the family and whose bitterness has caused her to despise Mermaid Cleo; the very proper sixty-year-old woman who runs the expensive school where the slightly retarded students go and knows that scandal will end her tenure where she's worked thirty years; the spoiled and violent fifteen-year-old boy who goes to school with Cleo and whose only desire is to someday be accepted by his playboy father; and the detective whose class resentment makes him dislike everybody involved in the case except for Aragon who is not wealthy. And finally to himself by proposing to her. Aragon believes that she has run off with him. But then the counselor is found murdered.
Millar's novels are always tours of the upper and lower classes and Mermaid is no different. Cleo's beauty is such that men of every class are dazzled by her; oddly her mental impairment has a certain wistful charm to add to her fetching face and body.
And Millar's novels always shock and surprise--she was Dame Agatha's favorite crime writer--so much so that they are textbooks for style and structure. Oh yes--and they are always comic as hell at moments.
In every respect Mermaid is stunning.