When Wives Go Wild
‘No woman in 20th century American mystery writing is more important than Margaret Millar.’ So said HRF Keating (and he should know) in his overview of crime and mystery, ‘Whodunnit?’
Millar was born in Kitchener, Ontario in 1915, but moved to the US and married the crime writer Ross Macdonald (who wisely changed his name from Mr Millar). She had wanted to be a writer from her teens, and eventually produced 27 novels and many short stories. What elevated them was the rich psychology of her characters. She wrote with an unsentimental eye about the lonely, the failed, the insecure and the desperate, succinctly delineating their lives in just a few well-chosen phrases.
Millar’s novels were concise and short, very much the style back in the 1950s, but the ideas they contained were unusually complex, so that her characters took on a larger life of their own. They started out lightly but gradually grew darker – and darker still as she continued through the war years and the fifties, right up into the
This is a hard trick to pull off; we’re used to modern mysteries clocking in at over 400 pages with everything explained and examined, often to the detriment of the book. Millar offered you a small, clear window to a larger, murkier world. Like the better-known Shirley Jackson, she would show you the interior life of her fragile heroines, so that you could watch and empathise as they lost their grip on reality and slipped into madness. She was brilliant at revealing mental states, and her plots often hinged on the machinations of vulnerable people.
Adept at creating powerful visuals, it seems hardly surprising that Millar made a fan of Hitchcock and ended up working at Warner Bros. Her future fame would have been assured, but Bette Davis apparently turned down the lead role in Millar’s brilliant suspenser ‘The Iron Gates’ because she was off-screen for the last third of the book, so the film was never made. Thanks for that, Bette.
Millar was the true mistress of the surprise ending, carefully laying the groundwork that would lead to an entirely appropriate and organic reveal, especially in ‘Beast In View’. Helen Clarvoe, a wealthy ‘old maid’ (of thirty!) with low self-esteem, is harassed by a crazy woman and hires her lawyer to do something about it. Clarvoe is seemingly an example of what we now call a WIP (Woman In Peril). ‘Behind her wall of money, behind her iron bars, Miss Clarvoe was the maiden in distress, crying out reluctantly and awkwardly for help.’ Millar always plays fair with the reader, but by slowly revealing the psychological complexity of her characters she alters what we know or think we know.
Millar used three unconventional detectives, but her real interest lay in exploring the emotional lives of women of the 1940s and 1950s. The Macdonald-Millar marriage was feisty, but the arguments often resulted in the pair’s best on-page dialogue. She never collaborated with her husband, but it was said that their greatest collaboration was a mutual commitment to writing.
Her books fell from fashion partly because their psychology dated (one gay character kills himself after the shame of exposure) but now some can be read as period works while others seem surprisingly contemporary. Intelligent populist fiction is partly about capturing the mindset of the times, something in which Millar excels.
Best of all, there are seven volumes back in print with matching spines, each containing a number of novels, plus her collected shorter fiction. Sadly there are no electronic versions so you have to lug about these hefty volumes, but they’re worth it.