Showing posts with label Margaret Millar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Margaret Millar. Show all posts

Thursday, November 21, 2013

FFB: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives - Sarah Weinman, editor

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Lives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman
Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 978-0143122548
384 pages $16.00
Publication date: August 2013

Yes, it's a brand new book and it's my choice for Friday's Forgotten Book. I guess this is a cheat of sorts. Since many of these women writers are utterly forgotten (but not by me -- I've written about many of their novels here) and this review is months overdue (I finished this book back in August) it's time to get it up on the blog.

Sarah Weinman has gathered together an impressive array of woman mystery writers who were instrumental in the development of a subgenre she likes to call domestic suspense. The anthology brings together pioneers in crime fiction like Margaret Millar, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong with stalwarts like Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, and Dorothy B. Hughes. Rounding out the group are the modern and all too often forgotten writers like Nedra Tyre and Celia Fremlin, and wonderful new finds like Joyce Harrington and Barbara Callahan. There are a total of fourteen women represented with a variety of stories that run the gamut from creepy and atmospheric to outright nasty. There is even a surprise happy ending delivered in "Everybody Needs a Mink", an atypically lighthearted story from Hughes normally known for her novels of paranoia and dread.

I would’ve liked a better story from Margaret Millar than her oft anthologized "The People Across the Canyon", a story even if you have never read it before will seem very familiar as it recycles an idea used too frequently in crime fiction. The story from Shirley Jackson, a master of both the novel and short story, is unfortunately the weakest and least satisfying in the collection. There has to be a better example from her pen than "Louisa, Please Come Home" which lacked bite and pizazz compared with the quality of the others selected. But the rest of the stories each have something to recommend them. Below are highlights from half the collection.

"A Nice Place to Stay" by Nedra Tyre
Tyre was a regular contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine where she published over forty short stories. In this tale she captures the voice of a loner woman whose only desire is a comfortable life, good food and a nice place to stay. An opportunistic lawyer jumps on her case and turns her into tool to advance his career. But the narrator has a surprise in store for all his hard work.

"Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen
I am a big fan of Nielsen’s novels and also her TV scripts for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In this story she takes the old trope of the anonymous phone caller and gives it a Nielsen triple twist. The story is notable for her narrative trick of weaving back and forth between the past and present in order to build suspense.

"Lavender Lady" by Barbara Callahan
An example of the creepy domestic suspense story and very well done. The story tells the origins of a popular folk tune as narrated by a singer/songwriter. Slowly we learn how her muse has affected her creative life. The repetition of the song lyrics are like the chants and doggerel of doom so often found in fairy tales.

"Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
The most experimental and mature of the lot. As in The Judas Cat and The Clay Hand, both early novels about how violence uncovers the corruption of small town’s population, Davis does in miniature and with an economy of words another story of rural life and crime. The narrative structure is layered with ambiguity and requires assiduous reading to glean all the subtleties. The relationships are revealed through bare bones dialogue and minimal description. It’s almost like a radio drama. Quite an impressive feat, loaded with sharp details and yet it’s the one of the shortest pieces.

"The Heroine" by Patricia Highsmith
As I was reading this one I couldn’t help but think of “The Turn of the Screw” and movies like The Nanny. Another one of those stories about a possibly mentally ill woman left in charge of children. Lucille has an obsessive need to prove herself and suffers from a few delusions. You know something is odd about her but you keep hoping that she isn’t a crazed lunatic. The ending is a shocker.

Joyce Harrington (a former actress) confesses
she writes by the Stanislavski method
"Mortmain" by Miriam Allen DeFord
Probably the nastiest story in the collection. Reminiscent of the kind of macabre irony Roald Dahl perfected in his short fiction. DeFord tells the story of a greedy nurse taking care of an ailing deputy sheriff and how her scheme to steal money from his safe goes horribly wrong. Has a gasp inducing ending proving this story to be the only true noir tale in the collection.

For me the gem of the book is "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington, a writer whose work I knew nothing about until I read this tale. It’s a little masterpiece. Each carefully chosen word rings true. The brilliant use of weaving imagery from the work on the loom to the spider spinning its web, the language used to evoke the serenity of Mrs. Moon’s state of mind as she plots revenge on her womanizing husband –- it’s all perfect. Here is the epitome of what Weinman talks about in her informative introduction defining the aspects of domestic suspense. If I were you I’d save it for the very last and savor it like a fine wine. It’s really that good.

Friday, June 1, 2012

FFB: A Stranger in My Grave - Margaret Millar

There is no doubt about it.  Margaret Millar is first and foremost a great storyteller.  Her husband, Ross Macdonald, once confessed a deep envy of her ability as a natural born writer as well. The famous example quoted in Tom Nolan's biography (as much a life story of the two crime writers as it is a bio of the creator of Lew Archer)  goes like this:
"F'rinstance" -- and he recited to me a sentence of hers with a simile in it: "Her question trailed off into the room like a faint cigarette track in the air, or something like that. The comparison between the question and the...smoke trailing off, was so perfect; the ear is so fine and the tuning so good, there."
When you combine a "natural born" talent for crafting perfect sentences like the one above with tightly plotted stories and characters who speak dialog with unique voices and who sound like people you meet in everyday life you get an end result that is all too rare in contemporary crime fiction:  real novels with real plots that both entertain the reader as mysteries and stimulate the mind with human insight and literary power.  No better example of Millar's triple whammy of talent can be found than in A Stranger in My Grave (1960), a mystery story that also happens to be a timely modern novel about birth origins, children and parenting.

A Stranger in My Grave features one of Millar's favorite crime fiction metaphors - nightmares.  As early as her sixth novel The Iron Gates (1945), her second mystery novel set in her home province of Ontario, Canada, she was playing with the idea of dreams -- more often than not nightmares -- and how those subconscious images interplay with a character's waking life.  In the case of The Iron Gates the nightmare was an expression of a repressed guilt over a past crime and in that novel another character exploits that repression in one of the most wicked forms of revenge ever perpetrated in contemporary crime fiction.  Fifteen years later Millar returned with a similar idea in A Stranger in My Grave. 

Daisy Harker dreams of visiting her own grave and hires Steve Pinata, bail bondsman and sometime private detective, to help her learn more about the date carved into the gravestone. When the two visit the cemetery they discover the grave exists exactly as described down to the unusual tree standing guard over the site. The mystery deepens when the name on the gravestone -- Carlos Camilla -- means absolutely nothing to Daisy.  The investigation then ceases to be less of the search for a "lost day" and rather the search for the connection between Camilla and Daisy.  That search will lead to Daisy's work as a volunteer in a clinic and Juanita Garcia, a woman who had a seemingly incidental contact with Daisy four years ago.

Apart from the tantalizing plot, its labyrinthine intricacies, and the near Dickensian way in which Millar manages to connect all the characters in the story there is an abundant richness of life in her fully realized and original characters. There are too many scenes I want to list as wondrous vignettes that serve as excellent examples of how Millar uses action to reveal character.  She is in many ways more of a dramatist than a novelist for she fully understands the first rule of theater and all good dramatic works -- show rather than tell.

Among the highlights are a scene in which a dog's love for Daisy is used to express her state of mind; the curmudgeon diner owner, Mrs Brewster and how she uses her denim apron as a theatrical prop as an extension of her personality; the contrast between Stan Fielding, Daisy's father and his new wife, Murial, a not too bright woman deeply in love with the man who sees his dreaming and eccentric way of speaking as signs of sophistication rather than posturing and humbuggery as most people do; Fielding's reluctance to steal a woman's purse in order to get the keys to her car -- the only thing he wants to take from her -- and how his hesitancy leads to his being caught; a powerful scene when Juanita, in a furor, attacks a locked door in the home of her religiously obsessed mother by breaking down the door with a crucifix.

And there are, of course, her words:
The promise was as frail as a bubble; it broke before his car was out of the driveway.
She had never called him Steve, and the sound of it coming from her made him feel for the first time that the name was finally and truly his own. [...] [H]e would always be grateful to her for this moment of strong, sure identity.
Time had become a living, breathing thing, attached to him as inexorably as a remora to a shark's belly, never sleeping or relaxing its grip...

The marvel of this particular book and what is most striking in my mind more than any other of Millar's is the structure and the recurring themes of childlessness, orphans, and parenting styles.  Read today in the context of negligent parents, child abuse and pop culture figures like "the Octomom", the story in  A Stranger in my Grave is amazingly timely. Beyond that timeliness is Millar's unique structure of interspersing snippets from a letter as chapter epigraphs. As the story of Daisy unfolds and the hidden truth behind her odd dream is ultimately revealed we also read a letter than was meant to be delivered to her years ago.  Only in the final chapter to we get to read the full letter along with Daisy and discover the truth at the same time she does. Only in the final words, nearly in the final sentence, is the power of the novel fully felt.

For an in-depth study of Millar's work, her relationship with her husband, and how she taught him how to be a better dialog writer read this article originally published in the Fall 2001 issue of Mystery Readers International.

Margaret Millar is the featured author this week for "Friday's Forgotten Books." There should be several reviews of her books from the regular contributors. To learn who reviewed a Millar book, and for all the other books featured this week, see the list at our host site, Patti Abbot's blog.

The Crime & Detective Novels of Margaret Millar
The Invisible Worm (1941)
The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942)
The Devil Loves Me (1942)
Wall of Eyes (1943)
Fire Will Freeze (1944)
The Iron Gates (1945)
Do Evil in Return (1950)
Rose's Last Summer (1952)
Vanish in an Instant (1952)
Beast in View (1955)
An Air That Kills (1957)
The Listening Walls (1959)
A Stranger in My Grave (1960)
How Like an Angel (1962)
The Fiend (1964)
Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)
Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976)
The Murder of Miranda (1979)
Mermaid (1982)
Banshee (1983)
Spider Webs (1986)