Tag Archives: Margaret Millar

Recent Reads, the Vintage Crime Edition – Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

A classic Miss Marple mystery – possibly one of her best, although I’ll let other, more seasoned readers be the judge of that.

The appearance of a most unusual announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette sets the residents of this sleepy rural village all of a flutter.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

Suitably intrigued, various friends of Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, gather together at the cottage at the appointed time later that day. The belief is that some kind of parlour game will take place – the sort of murder mystery where guests adopt various roles, someone gets ‘killed’, and everyone else has to guess the murderer’s identity. However, Letitia herself knows nothing about it. Maybe her cousin, Patrick, also resident at the Paddocks, has arranged it all as a joke? It’s hard to tell…

Just as the clock strikes 6.30 p.m., the lights go out, leaving the drawing-room in complete darkness. The door swings open with a crash; a powerful flashlight is shone around the room; a man’s voice shouts ‘Stick ‘em up, I tell you!’; and a series of three gunshots rings out. When someone flicks open their lighter, it is clear that the intruder – a masked assailant – is dead. Turns out he is known to Letitia, although not very well – a waiter she had encountered while staying at a hotel who subsequently approached her, unsuccessfully, with a sob story for money.

At first, the police are inclined to believe the incident was some kind of botched attempt at burglary. But once Inspector Craddock starts digging around, it seems that theory doesn’t quite add up. Murder is suspected, a crime almost certainly committed by someone attending the gathering on the evening in question. Before long, Miss Marple becomes involved in the case, gently probing the suspects in her own unassuming way. Her technique of subtly dropping ‘innocent’ questions into the conversation is very effective indeed.

As ever with Christie, the characterisation is great, and no one is quite who they might seem at first sight. Living at the Paddocks with Letitia are her cousins, Patrick and Julia, her childhood friend, Dora (a complete scatterbrain), a widow named Philippa, and the German cook, Mitzi, a suspicious/paranoid woman whose family were killed in the war. Among the guests, we have a retired Colonel and his partner, two busybodyish ‘country’ types who share a house together, and a kindly yet forthright vicar’s wife.

I’d quite forgotten how funny Christie can be – she really is very amusing! Here are the two ‘country’ spinsters trying to re-enact the murder to jog their memories of the scene.

‘Tuck your hair up, Murgatroyd, and take this trowel. Pretend it’s a revolver.’

‘Oh,’ said Miss Murgatroyd, nervously.

‘All right. It won’t bite you. Now come along to the kitchen door. You’re going to be the burglar. You stand here. Now you’re going into the kitchen to hold up a lot of nit-wits. Take the torch. Switch it on.’

‘But it’s broad daylight!’

‘Use your imagination, Murgatroyd. Switch it on.’

Miss Murgatroyd did so, rather clumsily, shifting the trowel under one arm while she did so.

‘Now then,’ said Mrs Hinchcliffe, ‘off you go. Remember the time you played Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the Women’s Institute? Act. Give it all you’ve got. “Stick ‘em up!” Those are your lines–and don’t ruin them by saying “Please.”

As a writer, Christie uses dialogue to great effect – not only to move the action forward but to reveal telling insights into character too. It’s very skilfully done.

The mystery itself is supremely well-plotted (surely a given where this author is concerned). Various subtle clues are dropped in along the way, from the significance of names and identities to the importance of little details in the drawing-room layout. The resolution, when it comes, is suitably twisty and satisfying, with Miss Marple’s deductions proving vital to Inspector Craddock’s investigations.

The post-war setting is beautifully evoked too, particularly the sense of a country undergoing social change. Fifteen years earlier, England was a different place, where everyone in the village knew who everyone else was. But in the late 1940s, things seem very different; nobody quite knows who anyone is anymore, especially as so many people effectively ‘disappeared’ during the war, making an individual’s real identity somewhat challenging to verify.

There were people, as he [Inspector Craddock] knew only too well, who were going about the country with borrowed identities—borrowed from people who had met sudden death by ‘incidents’ in the cities. There were organizations who bought up identities, who faked identity and ration cards–there were a hundred small rackets springing into being. You could check up–but it would take time–and time was what he hadn’t got…

A Murder is Announced ticks all the boxes for me, one of those mysteries where everyone is a suspect and longstanding secrets are revealed.

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar (1960)

This wasn’t quite as satisfying for me, so I’ll aim to keep this summary reasonably brief.

The novel’s premise is an interesting one. Daisy Harker is tormented by a recurring nightmare, a dream in which she comes across a gravestone bearing her name and date of birth. According to the inscription, thirty-year-old Daisy died four years earlier in December 1955. Convinced that something highly significant must have happened on that date, she employs a private detective, Steve Pinata, to help her reconstruct the day as fully as possible. Maybe then she can deal with whatever consequences it throws up and hopefully move on.

Daisy is married, but her relationship with husband Jim is not a happy one. Jim and his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs Fielding (who lives in a cottage 200 yards from the Harkers’ house), treat Daisy like a child, casting her in the role of ‘happy innocent’ – a fact Daisy finds very frustrating. While Jim is somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of Daisy trying to uncover the meaning of her dreams, he plays along with it, just to keep her occupied.

As Pinata begins to investigate Daisy’s movements on the day in question, more information comes to light, bringing other characters into the mix. Perhaps the most notable of these is Daisy’s father, Mr Fielding, something of a drifter and alcoholic who been absent for the last three years.     

For the most part, the central characters are well drawn, particularly Pinata, an orphan whose parentage and family history are largely unknown. (Millar has a longstanding interest in issues of race and gender inequality.) Daisy, however, seems more lightly sketched. She is never much more than a cypher for me – someone to hang the narrative around as opposed to an individual with a real sense of depth. The plot too is rather convoluted. At 300 pp. this mystery could have benefited from a bit of filleting here and there to help keep things pacey and tight.

Millar’s prose, however, is very good. This author can write! Her dialogue is excellent; it’s well-crafted and naturalistic. There are some nice sinister touches along the way too, indications that Jim may be controlling the situation, effectively keeping certain information hidden from Daisy’s view.

I should play along with her, Jim thought. That was Adam’s advice. God knows, my own approach doesn’t work. (p. 74)

If you’re interested in reading Margaret Millar, then I’d suggest you try either Vanish in an Instant or The Listening Walls – both very good. They’re tighter than Stranger, and more satisfying as a result.

A Stranger in My Grave is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

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.

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Set in a small town in Michigan in the midst of a snowy winter, Vanish in an Instant (1952) is a tightly plotted murder mystery in the classic hardboiled style. Its author, Margaret Millar, was a Canadian-American crime writer, best known for her 1955 novel Beast in View, winner of the Edgar Allen Poe award for best novel. If Vanish is anything to go by then that award was fully justified; it’s a very compelling mystery, full of twists and turns with plenty to keep the reader guessing right up to the very end.

As the novel opens, Mrs Hamilton, a wealthy and rather bossy matriarch, has just arrived in town accompanied by her paid companion, Alice Dwyer. Mrs Hamilton is on a mission, namely to do whatever it takes to get her daughter, Virginia, out of jail following her alleged involvement in the murder of a local married man, Claude Margolis. As far as the police are concerned, Virginia – Margolis’ mistress – is the prime suspect, especially as she was found wandering about near her lover’s cottage shortly after the stabbing.

However…Virginia was blind drunk at the time of the incident, and her recollections of the evening’s events are hazy at best. Even though she was discovered covered in blood, Virginia has no idea whether she actually killed Margolis or not – she may have done it, but she isn’t sure. Neither is Meecham, the bright lawyer Virginia’s husband, Paul, has hired to help.

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing the yellow wool dress and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes. (p. 30)

To complicate matters further, a local man named Earl Loftus appears on the scene and confesses to committing the murder. On the surface, Loftus seems to have no apparent connections to Margolis, but his account of the crime is convincing enough to persuade the police of his involvement. Virginia is released and reunited with her family, leaving the police to tie up the case against the mysterious Loftus. Meecham, however, remains unconvinced of Loftus’ guilt, fearing that Mrs Hamilton has paid the loner to take the rap. As it turns out, Loftus is dying from leukaemia, so he has little to lose by standing in for the killer – quite the contrary in fact as his family would stand to gain financially from Mrs Hamilton’s payout.

As he continues to investigate Loftus and the various connections to the case, Meecham becomes increasingly convinced that things are not as clear-cut as they might appear. Inch by inch, the view widens to include other individuals connected to Loftus: namely his devoted landlady, Mrs Hearst, and her husband, Jim; his alcoholic mother, Clara Loftus, a genuinely tragic figure; and his ex-wife, Birdie, no longer on the scene. Each character is drawn with care and attention, from the major influencers to the seemingly peripheral players in the mix.

To reveal any more of the plot would almost certainly spoil some elements of the story, but suffice it to say that it remains suitably gripping and intriguing to the end. However, what really sets this mystery apart from others in the genre is the character development, aided by the attention to detail Millar brings to this aspect of the novel. Very few of these individuals are as straightforward or as ‘black-and-white’ as they might seem on the surface; instead, their personalities are nuanced with shades of grey and degrees of ambiguity that reflect a degree of reality.

There’s a great deal of hard work and diligence in Meecham’s quest for the truth, qualities that reward his persistence in following up the loose ends. Millar also brings a strong sense of humanity to the lawyer’s character, an understanding of the harsh realities of life for some of the individuals involved. Moreover, there’s a lovely dynamic between Meecham and Alice Dwyer, Mrs Hamilton’s desirable young companion, almost reminiscent of a screwball comedy-romance at times, such is the nature of their pitch-perfect dialogue.

The small-town atmosphere is nicely captured too, adding a sense of unease and darkness to the story, somethings that help to reflect the ‘feel’ of the place.

In the summer the red bricks of the courthouse were covered with dirty ivy and in the winter with dirty snow. The building had been constructed on a large square in what was originally the center of town. But the town had moved westward, abandoned the courthouse like an ugly stepchild, leaving it in the east end to fend for itself among the furniture warehouses and service stations and beer-and-sandwich cafés. (p. 26)

In summary, this is a sharply plotted, absorbing mystery – ideal reading for the winter months.

He walked out the door and down the hall. He didn’t look back but he knew she was watching him. He could feel her eyes on the back of her neck, cold and painful as the touch of ice. (p. 222)

My thanks to John, who has been encouraging me to read this author for a while.

Final note: As some of you may know, Margaret Millar was married to Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries are amongst my favourite novels in the genre – I’ve written about some of them here.

Vanish in an Instant is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.