Friday, July 3, 2015

FFB: Picture of Millie - P. M. Hubbard

"I wish I could give you a proper picture of Millie," he said, "but I won't try, I don't think."

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.
He's on holiday and his main concern is his family. But while entertaining them with boat tours, line fishing for mackerel, and a visit to an estate dating back to medieval times he finds his mind wandering. Those pictures of Millie painted by all her friends, acquaintances and husband, her horrible fall from a cliff, the oddness of her missing life jacket which she always wore when anywhere near the water, all of these thoughts and images cannot be dismissed from his mind. Paul is compelled to learn the truth of why she was on the cliffs, who she might have be traveling to meet in secret, and how she ended up dead in the ocean.

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.

Millie is their femme fatale. But she is not at all like the temptresses of noir cinema and hard-boiled private eye novels. For one thing she has no ulterior motives in the friendships she develops with these men. Described as full of life, always beaming, always laughing joyfully, and radiating attraction in all its forms Millie is not out to use people. She genuinely wants to be with them whether in order to learn the fine art of sailing with Dawson or to bask in the male beauty of virile Cardew. Never really aware of her allure she managed to weave a spell over all these men like the mermaid that Paul and Mary jokingly call her. In one way or another each is responsible for Millie's death.

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.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating character study, John. I've long had P. M. Hubbard on my list of authors to try one day. I just haven't gotten to him yet. You've given me another nudge to move him closer to the top.

  2. This looks extremely interesting. I have to confess I've never read Hubbard's work, but very obviously I should. Many thanks for a fine account.

  3. I too have not read any books by P. M. Hubbard and don't know much about his works. Thanks for this introduction.

  4. Never heard of him either, John. But I like what you've written about the book, so I will be getting the e-version for my Kindle at some point. Kindle comes in so handy for little known or forgotten books. Thank goodness. The idea behind this reminds me of Penelope Lively's book THE PHOTOGRAPH. Sort of.

  5. I always suffer a little sigh of disappointment when I read, toward the end of one of your reviews, "...has released the book in digital format.". Darn, I really don't much like reading a book on a screen.

    Fine review of a book I probably wouldn't read if I did come across it.

  6. Like Bev, I've long fancied reading Hubbard, but have never quite managed it. You're one of a number of very good judges who admire his work, so I really must give him a go.