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)


  1. I couldn't agree more about Margaret Millar's talent for writing dialogue. Always captivating, yet so very realistic, it surely says something about her ability to craft true and full characters. Your review leaves me with the recurring Millar mystery: Why no feature films? The dialogue, of course, is already all there.

    1. There was supposed to be a film version of The Iron Gates. Warner Brothers purchased the rights for it as a vehicle Bette Davis. But because Lucille Morrow did not appear in the final third of the film Davis declined to appear and it never was filmed. There are three TV programs of her books. A Beast in View (you know already with the perfectly cast Joan Hackett) for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", later done again for the revamped 1980s version, and also Mary Astor in Rose's Last Summer for "Thriller" hosted by Boris Karloff. I thought Astor did a great job in a difficult role that requires bravura acting in order to carry off the surprise ending. A lot of bloggers think it's a lousy episode for "Thriller." I think it's a fairly well done adaptation of a complicated novel with a tricky plot.

    2. I'd heard about the aborted Iron Gates, but not the details. Shame that it was never made.

      Despite my best efforts, the televised Rose's Last Summer has eluded me. One can just imagine the effort it took to adapt and deal with the plot in under an hour. Interesting to consider Boris Karloff's introduction, since he was one of the three judges who "unanimously" chose The Iron Gates for inclusion in the Dell Great Mystery Library.

    3. Sergio will admonish me for doing this, but I did find someone has uploaded Rose's Last Summer from "Thriller" here.

    4. Tut, tut ... and such good quality too! They must have ripped it from the recent DVD. I love that bit when he says "as sure as my name is Boris Karloff" (well, does sound better than William Henry Pratt).

    5. John, my thanks for pointing this out. Fun to see, and the first few minutes are quite good, but it didn't exactly make me want to rush out and purchase the DVD . That said, it's much, much better than the 1986 Beast in View.

    6. I liked it, too. Astor does her best in a difficult role. At times she really pulls off the trick. The Thriller TV show as a whole has only a handful of good episodes. Most of the early ones from season one are utter duds. "Rose's Last Summer" is the fifth episode. It improves in season two, and I think the shows that are more geared towards the supernatural are the best. Personal tastes, of course.

  2. I think Margaret Millar did her best work in the Fifties and Sixties.

    1. I agree. In the earlier books she spends too much time on satiric humor. When she shifted to more serious themes she found her strength.

  3. Terrific review John - Along with HOW LIKE AN ANGEL, this is probably my favourite Millar of all, though there are none I don't like. The only ones I haven't read are her first (which i don't have yet) and her last (which I do).

  4. I wish someone would reprint her first two books. They're practically impossible to find at an affordable price. The only route seems to be via a library. At least with THE DEVIL LOVES ME there are cheap reprint copies out there. I've never seen a reprint of either THE WEAK-EYED BAT or THE INVISIBLE WORM. In fact, I've never seen a copy of either book. Ever.

    1. I did find a copy of THE INVISIBLE WORM for this week's FFB (since I don't have a blog, it's posted on Patti's). Prior to reading it, I'd only ever read THE BEAST IN VIEW and figured someone else would certainly choose to do an FFB on that. When I did a library search for Millar, I found only two books: THE INVISIBLE WORM and FIRE WILL FREEZE, both of them published (in 1989 and 1990, respectively) by Curley Publications in the Atlantic Large Print Series. (For the first time in a long time, I didn't have to wear my glasses while reading!) I agree that her writing matured over time; as you will see when you read my review, I found THE INVISIBLE WORM a little too arch with some of the humor rather out-of-place. But you can see Millar's strength--the bonds between family members, the domestic details of mid-century American life, sharp dialog, wonderful similes--already apparent.

    2. Deb -

      I was happy to see a review of her first book. Lucky you to have found a copy! In a library as I suspected. That satire thing she had going on in her first three books reminds me so much of what Gladys Mitchell was doing in her early career. Uncanny the similarities there. Near spoofs of the English country manor mystery and the isolated group being knocked off one by one (Fire Will Freeze). I hope some day I can locate a copy of the first two books. I have read nearly all of them and I own most of the pre-1960s titles.

    3. You beat me to a review of this one, John. It's sitting in my 2012 TBR pile...just haven't gotten to it yet. I'll have to come back and read your review more closely once I've tackled it.

  5. Great writer. One of the greatest. Master of nightmares, a bit as Ursula Curtiss but harder.
    This novel is a true masterpiece, and it shows in being able to keep the tension high until the last, with the final revelation held suspended and resolved only at the last.

  6. Great post, John. I've never read any Margaret Millar and I suspect it may be because I confused her with someone else. Yvette's mind works in mysterious ways.

    But I'm adding her work to my Vintage list and will now be on the look-out for her books. Hopefully I'll like them as much as you. I love Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer books.

  7. Great piece. She's such a good writer, of pure prose and suspense both.