There are many perceptions of Millie Trent, the carefree vivacious wife of Major Trent, who serves as muse, object of desire, and dear friend for many of the characters in Picture of Millie (1964). Here is a story where the life of a dead woman is a greater mystery than the circumstances surrounding her unfortunate death. We only get to know Millie after her death and as such it is the perceptions of others we get. Their portraits are as varied and colorful as any that could be painted on canvas -- deeply personal, secretive longings, inexplicable attractions are all there depending on the person describing Millie Trent. Paul Mycroft never really knew her and can only base his opinions on what he saw and how she related to the other guests of the Carrack Hotel where he and his family are vacationing. His own assessment of Millie Trent will change greatly over the course of the novel as he tries to learn the truth of how she came to be floating in the ocean.
The amateur sleuth can be handled in a variety of ways in a detective novel. The Golden Age gave us hundreds of egocentric amateurs eager to show off their arcane knowledge, dozens of geniuses both male and female ever willing to assist the police or go off on their own to uncover the truth of baffling murders. None of that rings true at all. Those detectives belong to a wholly fictional world. Hubbard eschews this type of character for one who is more grounded in reality. In one of Hubbard's few true detective novels Paul Mycroft becomes a detective ever so slowly, by accident even. He is a victim of his own curiosity and uncontrollable imagination.
High above them a tangle of green paths criss-crossed the broken slopes. Nothing moved on them, but Paul saw with his mind's eye a small figure, parti-coloured in two shades of blue, climbing eagerly while the last grains of sand ran out through the waist of the glass. Lord, lord, he thought, what a fearful way to fall. Then he thought, but it can't have been like that.
Even as early as this second novel Hubbard's talent for describing the landscape and geography is a highlight. He arouses so many moods in his sensual writing and the action is inextricably linked to the setting. The coastline with its ominous jagged rocks, the turbulent ocean, a hidden cave where the unexpectedly violent climax takes place -- each are characters in their own right. Comparisons to John Buchan and Robbert Louis Stevenson, both writers of adventure stories who knew their settings well and wrote of them with lush detail, are not at all exaggerated. Readers who enjoy their thrillers taking place in evocative settings will find much to admire and absorb in reading any Hubbard novel.
As for the human characters the focus is on the men, all of whom find themselves drawn to Millie in one way or another. Dawson is the drunken fantasist with a harridan for a wife who, when he isn't engaging in public marital spats, drowns his sorrows in whiskey at the hotel bar. Mike Cardew, the local Adonis fisherman, catches the eyes of every women from teenage Susan to Mary, Paul's wife, and seemed to have a relationship with Millie that to everyone seemed purely sexual but was much deeper. Major Trent, a colorless personality rendered all but invisible by his young wife's death is seen by Paul and Mary as "the hollow man." And then there's Bannerman, a "professional bachelor" whose wealth is his identity. Aloof yet affable, somewhat sinister in the way he is always smiling, Bannerman is like an anachronistic medieval landowner treating the townspeople as his serfs and vassals.
Copies of Picture of Millie are rather scarce in the used book market. There were no paperback reprints that I could find and only one printing of each hardcover edition in the UK and the US. The US version has the collectible Edward Gorey DJ as shown above. But have no fear -- once again Orion's vintage crime imprint The Murder Room has released the book in digital format. This time the book is available to everyone with no "country of residence restrictions" as with some of Joan Fleming's books. While not as violent or dark as Hubbard's more signature works like The Holm Oaks or A Hive of Glass as one of his few forays into a traditional detective novel (albeit one with some non traditional twists) Picture of Millie is definitely worth reading.
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space L6 - "Book involves a form of transportation"
Boats and sailing are prominent in the story.