Sunday, November 08, 2009

Margaret Millar

I reread How Like An Angel the last two nights so thought I'd reprint this.

I've spoken here many times of my admiration for the novels of Margaret Millar. Her fate seems to be that of great praise but not many readers. She won an Edgar, she was frequently judged to be as good a writer as her husband Ken Millar (Ross Macdonald), and her books are dazzlers both as stories and exemplars of witty and sometimes mordant style.

I also once said that there are writers too good for the masses and I sometimes wonder if Millar isn't one of them. She makes few concessions to the commercial mystery. Her people are very much her own. In this regard she reminds me of someone I'm sure she read early in her career, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. Her characters are unique to genre fiction, drawn from life rather than books. And I'm pretty sure this is off-putting to readers who want the familiar types we find in so much commercial fiction.

I'm saying all this because I've just finished reading the Spring 2007 issue of Clues, which is mostly devoted to Millar. Editor Dean James has put together the most interesting, enlightening and memorable work I've ever seen about her. Tom Nolan, who wrote the outstanding biography of Ross Macdonald a few years back, takes us here into the hearts and lives of two writers who are not only husband and wife but (as a Millar quote gently suggests) competitors. A fine fine piece.

Ana Patricia Rodriguez, on the other hand, gives us a polemic on Millar's view of Mexicans and Mexico as found in her Tom Aragon novels and in the standalone BEYOND THIS POINT ARE MONSTERS. Rodriguez is indisputably correct. Millar's writing reflected the opinions of many white, middle-class (or upper-middle-class) Californians. Their misgivings about the immigrants weren't expressed in any "common" vulgar way but you do see in Millar's writing the disdain she and her crowd felt for them.

The essay by Kelly C. Connelly compares the psychologoy in Dorothy Sayers to the psychology of Millar. And Dean James tells us which Millar books are in print.

Robert Barnard takes a sage look at Millar's final novels, among them the sinfully overlooked THE MURDER OF MIRANDA. For one thing, the sections dealing with the poisoned pen writer at the country club are among the most savagely bitchy (and hilarious) moments in all of Millar's writing. And for another, I've rarely seen a more moving portrait of a beautiful woman who is losing the one thing she's depended on all her life--her looks, The twins here are out of the black humor of Terry Southern. Barnard's as good a critic as he is a novelist and short story writer. I put him at the top in all three categories.

There's also a Caren J. Town piece on the racism and sexism that Deborah Knott must face in the excellent novels by Margaret Maron. "The Same old Same old" says it all.

Update--so why aren't you on the net ordering yourself some Millars right now?


pattinase (abbott) said...

Love her. That one and A BEAST IN VIEW. I have IRON TERRACES waiting for me still. I read her before Ross (Kenneth).

Frank Loose said...

I only read one of her books, Beast in View, and it was quite a while back. I remember it was well written, but i can't remember much about the story. Stark House reprinted two of her books: An Air That Kills /
Do Evil in Return. Are you familiar with those titles?

Deb said...

I've only read The Beast in View, which I thought was terrific. Unfortunately, I believe that was the only Millar our library had on the shelves. I'll have to recheck their database, especially as she appears to be a favorite of Robert Barnard, who is one of my favorite mystery writers.

Ed Gorman said...

Frank both The Air That Kills and Do Evil In Return are masterful. Air is one of my favorites, a perfectly conceived and beautifully written masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Ed. Thanks. I ordered and read the Stark House reprint and enjoyed both novels some while back. I just checked: our library has no MM books. I see our Tom Nolan bio. of RM gives a lot of coverage to their marriage.

Ed Lynskey

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Bennett Cerf, in _Dear Donald, Dear Bennett_, refers to MM's _The Iron Gates_, in which it's quite clear that Random House had to go back to print within just a month or so of its release. Cerf's respect for MM's talent is also very clear.

Xavier said...

"Ana Patricia Rodriguez, on the other hand, gives us a polemic on Millar's view of Mexicans and Mexico as found in her Tom Aragon novels and in the standalone BEYOND THIS POINT ARE MONSTERS."

What about A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE? Anti-Latino racism is a key element of the plot (to say more would be committing a major spoiler) and Millar's treatment as well as well as her choice of detective (one Steve Pinata, sadly never to be seen again) makes her stance on the subject quite clear and rather at odds with Rodriguez's analysis.

Martin Edwards said...

One of the truly great writers. A Stranger in my Grave is a special favourite and it influenced at least one of my own novels. I must have a look at Clues.

Unknown said...

You remember the interview you did with her in Mystery Scene. Maggie liked you. She used to complain about most of the other interviews she did. How about reprinting it on your blog?
Don't forget Mermaid, the third of the Aragon novels. It's probably the closest she got to a straightforward PI novel.