The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

Last year I read and enjoyed Vanish in an Instant (1952), a tightly-plotted murder mystery by the Canadian-American crime writer, Margaret Millar. The Listening Walls is a later work – published some seven years after Vanish in 1959. If anything, TLW is a more accomplished novel, certainly in terms of its premise and insights into the secrets and petty disagreements of suburban life. Certain aspects of the story reminded me of novels by other American crime writers I love and admire – in particular, Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes. All of these writers – Millar included – seem to share an interest in their characters’ psychology and motivations, the difference between an individual’s public persona and their underlying inner world.

The Listening Walls opens in Mexico City where Wilma Wyatt has persuaded her closest friend, Amy Kellogg, to accompany her on a get-away-from-it-all kind of holiday as a break from the routine of their lives in San Francisco. Oddly enough, the two women couldn’t be more different from one another; while Wilma is intolerant, rude and domineering, Amy is shy, submissive and mouse-like, frequently embarrassed by her friend’s disdainful treatment of the Mexican chambermaid.

Amy Kellogg, standing by the window, made a sound of embarrassed protest, a kind of combination of ssshh and oh dear. The sound was Amy’s own, the resonance of her personality, and an expert could have detected in it the echoes of all the things she hadn’t had the nerve to say in her lifetime, to her parents, her brother Gill, her husband Rupert, her old friend Wilma. She was not, as her brother Gill frequently pointed out, getting any younger. It was time for her to take a firm stand, be decisive and businesslike. Don’t let people walk all over you, he often said, while his own boots went tramp, crunch, grind. Make your own decisions, he said, but every time she did make a decision it was taken away from her and cast aside or improved, as if it were a toy a child had made, crude and grotesque. (pp. 11–12)

For Wilma, the break is supposed to be a chance to get over her recent divorce and other life events; however, in truth, she seems more interested in complaining about the standards of service at the hotel than trying to relax or forget about her cares.

At an early point in the story, there is a dramatic development at the hotel when Wilma falls to her death from the balcony of her bedroom, a room she has been sharing with Amy. Moreover, Amy is discovered lying unconscious in the same room, presumably having fainted from shock following the incident involving Wilma. As a consequence, Amy is admitted to hospital for a few days to recover; meanwhile, her husband Rupert, a bored yet moderately successful accountant, travels to Mexico with the aim of accompanying Amy home.

As the story unravels, layer upon layer of mystery is revealed. There are reports that the two women were observed drinking heavily in the hotel bar before the fatal incident, something that seems entirely out of character for Amy if not for Wilma. The presence of a freeloading barfly, an American named O’Donnell, was also noted and considered to be somewhat suspicious. Then, most worrying of all, Amy disappears from her home immediately following her return from Mexico City, leaving a letter of explanation with Rupert to be delivered to her overbearing brother, Gill.

Gill, for his part, refuses to believe Amy’s reason’s for taking off so suddenly – namely, that Wilma’s death has prompted Amy to reconsider her life, sparking a need for independence and a break from the reliance on others. In short, Gill is convinced that a) Rupert is hiding something, and b) Amy’s letter is a fake, possibly extracted under duress; so, he hires a local PI, Elmer Dodd, to investigate the situation further.

That’s probably enough in terms of the plot; to say any more at this stage might spoil things, but there’s plenty of intrigue at the heart of this story to maintain the reader’s interest.

For a crime novel, the characterisation is refreshingly nuanced. With the possible exception of Elmer Dodd, no one is quite who or what they might seem on the surface. As the story plays out, different facets of their personalities are revealed, mostly through the uncovering of various motivations and behaviours. The minor characters are nicely judged too, from Rupert’s devoted secretary, the idiosyncratic Miss Burton, to Gill’s private eye, the level-headed Elmer Dodd.

Millar’s style is very engaging, with a good balance between descriptive passages and dialogue to move the action along. The atmosphere is well conveyed too, especially as the novel approaches its denouement.

Along the ocean front waves angered by the wind were flinging themselves against the shore. Spray rose twenty feet in the air and swept across the highway like rain, leaving the surface sleek and treacherous. Dodd kept the speedometer at thirty, but the thundering of the sea and the great gusts of wind that shook and rattled the car gave him a sensation of speed and danger. The road, which he’d traveled a hundred times, seemed unfamiliar in the noisy darkness; it took turns he couldn’t remember, past places he’d never seen. Just south of the zoo, the road curved inland to meet Skyline Boulevard. (p. 160)

Some readers might find the final solution to the mystery behind Wilma’s death and Amy’s disappearance a little convoluted. Nevertheless, I’m happy to go with it, especially as the ride along the way is so enjoyable, full of potential clues and red herrings to fox the reader. There are some darkly comic touches here and there too, nicely incorporated with the rest of the narrative.

All in all, this is a very welcome addition to the Pushkin Press/Pushkin Vertigo list; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

42 thoughts on “The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

  1. Kate Vane

    Interesting – I feel like I should be a Margaret Millar fan. I read Beast in View recently, loved the characterisation and prose but felt a bit let down by the plot. Maybe I’ll try another.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m beginning to get the feeling that plot may not be Millar’s strongest quality, particularly as the resolution to this mystery turns out to be somewhat tangled. What she lacks in clarity of plot she makes up for other areas, especially characterisation. I could quite happily read another novel featuring Elmer Dodd, such a grounded investigator.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I do like Margaret Millar – I have two chunky volumes of her collected novels on my shelves. Just in case I need to go somewhere without books or am laid up in bed – perfect reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. I’ve only really ‘discovered’ Margaret Millar in the last couple of years, largely due to the efforts of Pushkin Press to bring some of her novels back in print. It sounds as if you were well ahead of the game with those collected volumes.

      Reply
      1. realthog

        The trouble with those omnibuses, assuming Marina and I are thinking of the same edition, is that the print in them is minuscle. I fought my way through the first one and then, eyes bleeding, determined to sus out the e-editions of the remainder (which I’ve not yet done, because I already possess several other unread Millar novels).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh no – how annoying! That would be a bit of non-starter for me, I’m afraid. We’ll have to hope that Pushkin continue to ride the wave with Millar, especially as their editions are so covetable.

          Reply
  3. Liz Dexter

    Interesting, I started reading this thinking I wouldn’t be interested in the book but I enjoy your reviews, and finished it thinking I’d actually like to look out for this!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this author is worth a try even if you’re not a big reader of crime. Unlike many contemporary thrillers, there’s nothing too gruesome or frightening here to give you the creeps. Just a good vintage mystery with some surprising twists.

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    Fiction Fan’s review put this on my radar and the two of you have me completely convinced on this one! It sounds great, particularly the characterisation. I’ve not read Millar but clearly I’m missing out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I wasn’t aware that Fiction Fan had written about this one. Thanks for the tip. I’ll drop by her blog a little later to take a look. Glad to hear we’ve convinced you to give it a try, a sort of a pincer movement between the two of us!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. The Wilma incident is one aspect of the mystery, but then there’s also the question of Amy’s sudden disappearance following her return from Mexico. That in itself adds another dimension to the story, especially when you factor in the family dynamics at play…

      Reply
  5. realthog

    A great account, Jacqui. As you may or may not recall, I generally enjoy Millar’s work, but this is one I haven’t read. I must try it soon.

    I began reading your account in puzzlement: this wasn’t the plot I remembered at all! Then I realized I was getting the title confused with Millar’s Wall of Eyes. Duh.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, I keep getting this mixed up with Vanish in an Instant, which is pretty unforgivable considering they’re the only two books by Millar I’ve actually read. (For some reason, I keep calling this novel ‘The Vanishing Walls’ instead of ‘The Listening Walls’…gah!) Anyway, it’s good to hear you’re a fan of Millar – I do recall you mentioning MM’s work when we’ve chatted about her husband Ross Macdonald’s books in the past, particularly the Lew Archer novels. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to get to this soon.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny! I shall keep an eye out for your review. Glad to hear our thoughts are relatively well aligned, especially as you’re so widely read when it comes to this genre.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You might like this, Karen. It’s firmly in the vintage territory – more noirish than the BLCCs, but certainly not as gruesome as the psychological thrillers that seem so popular these days. Definitely worth considering if the premise appeals.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Ooh this does sound good. I am already wondering about the dynamics between the two women before the death of one of them. 😊 I also read Vanish in an Instant a few months ago, and really enjoyed it. This does sound even better, and I have been wanting to read more by Margaret Millar.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like her. You’re probably aware of this already, but just in case you’re not…she was married to Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald), so there’s an interesting comparison to made with the Lew Archer novels!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can relate to that. Agatha Christie was my go-to author in the days of my youth as a break from the grind of studying. There’s nothing like a bit of good old-fashioned escapism to relieve the boredom!

      Reply
  7. Radz Pandit

    I thoroughly enjoyed Vanish In an Instant when I read it late last year, prompting me to buy the rest of her titles published by Pushkin Press. So it’s good to know that this one is more accomplished. Really looking forward to it (I love Highsmith and Hughes too)!

    Reply
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  9. Scott W.

    Great. I felt the same as Kate about plot in Beast in View, and nearly gave up on trying Millar again. But I later got hold of the volume of the collected Millar that holds both Beast in View and The Listening Walls (+ 3 others), and I’m glad to have read them all. She often starts with a concept – the killer right in front of you the whole time, a noir without a crime, and here, a kind of locked room mystery regarding the two women, with Amy in the room but obvious to what might have happened.

    If nothing else, Millar is fantastic about dissecting marriage.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a very interesting way of looking at her method. I hadn’t thought of it that way until you mentioned it, but I think you’re right. That said, her initial set-ups are terrific, but somehow the denouements seem rather less than convincing. I was happy to go with it in this case – partly because the rest of the novel was so intriguing — but I do wonder whether she struggles with the the credibility of her endings in general.

      Good point on Millar’s dissection of marriages and relationships. There are some excellent observations on the dynamics between Gill and his prickly wife, Helene, especially as the focus of the narrative shifts onto Amy’s family…

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    I agree about the potentially-unsettling nature of the resolution in this one, but I also agree that, for some reason (and presumably that’s to do with her skill as a story-teller coupled with her keen interest in psychology) I just rolled along with it. She really does have a knack for burrowing into the minds of her characters. And I feel like she is just as sensitive to the universals as to the unique perspectives among the characters – they are not always relatable (though sometimes they are that, too) but they are nearly always credible! (The copies I read were the omnibus ones which others have mentioned and their print is excruciatingly small, yes, but their spines have a lovely little murderous domestic scene which is surprisingly playful when the set is complete.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s strange. Even though the resolution to the mystery was pretty far-fetched, it didn’t bother me as much as it might have with another (less engaging?) writer. Like you, I was quite relaxed about going with it in the end in spite of all its hokiness.

      Those omnibus editions sound worth having for the spines alone. I love it when publishers do something creative like that; it’s definitely an incentive to collect the whole set!

      Reply
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