Friday, January 22, 2016

FFB: An Air That Kills - Margaret Millar

In an effort to crank out more posts on the books I read this year I have come up with a formula that will highlight the aspects that I think make the books worth reading and I'll conclude with a "Things I Learned" section, which has grown out of my yearly post about the arcane information I have gleaned from my reading of these vintage books. In some cases I find so many fascinating bits of trivia, history and geography that I fill an entire index card separate from the notes I take on the content of the book and its story. This year I'll be talking about the "Things I Learned" for every book rather than saving up the most bizarre info I've collected for a post at the end of the year.

THE STORY: An Air That Kills (1957) is a perfect example of what Sarah Weinman likes to call "domestic suspense", a subgenre pioneered by women crime fiction writers in the post World War Two era. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding began writing about the dark underpinnings of marital discomfort and suburban malaise as early as The Death Wish (1935) but writers like Millar, Charlotte Armstrong and many others built upon the same ideas Holding first explored and delved deeper with ever increasing innovation. In An Air That Kills what first appears to be a soap opera of two unhappy married couples turns out to be a subtle story of a crime of passion, perhaps several crimes of passion if one interprets the phrase as a metaphor. Philandering husband Ron Galloway disappears en route to a fishing lodge for a weekend getaway with his buddies and the search for him develops into an exploration of suspected adultery, jealousy, marital deceit and a subtle and cleverly hidden murder mystery with some unexpected detective work.

THE CHARACTERS: Thelma Bream is one of Millar's most unusual creations. On the surface a model wife who is spookily like a 1950s Stepford wife in her parroting of her husband's wishes, her obedience, and devotion. But beneath this carefully cultivated mask of a perfect wife is a daydreaming, half crazed, hugely dissatisfied woman longing for a child. And she is willing to do anything to achieve her fantasies. She is filled with contradictions and simultaneously infuriates the reader with her rash behavior and near mad worldview while provoking ironic sympathy for her plight. The men tend to dominate the story and each one has a distinct voice and personality from the logically minded college professor Ralph Turee to Harry, Thelma's deluded husband.

There are a variety of very minor characters so well drawn and intriguing you wish that they had their own sequels so that you can get to know them better outside of their brief appearance in this story of Ron Galloway's vanishing. A chapter that takes place in a rural Canadian elementary school is a highlight with the character of a Mennonite girl and her two teachers trying to find out where she found a man's hat and if it might be tied to the news story of the missing man.

THE QUOTES: "He had a sensation that he and Harry were stationary and the night was moving past them swiftly, turbulent with secrets. To the right the bay was visible in the reflection of a half moon. The waves nudged each other and winked slyly and whispered new secrets."

"She slammed down the lid of the trunk, but the gesture, like Pandora's, was a little too late. Too many things had already escaped."

"The long erratic journey had ended for Harry. The crazed bird had grown weary, the misguided missile had struck a meteorite and was falling through space."

THINGS I LEARNED: In the school sequence Millar mentions in passing that two children are Doukhobors. What? I had to go looking that up. The Doukhobors were Russian dissidents who emigrated to the United States and Canada to escape religious and political persecution. They believe that God resides within all humans and not as a supernatural entity housed in a church. They rejected all traditional organized religions and the Bible. Instead, they created their own psalms and hymns to celebrate their beliefs. Their history is fascinating and I could write an entire post about this little known sect. For those who wish to be enlightened as I was I suggest you read the article on them at The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Esther and Thelma have an intimate tête-à-tête at a place called Child's. I thought at first Millar just made it up until I read the phrase "by the time they reached the nearest Child's" which seemed to indicate it was a real life chain. And of course it was. Child's was one of the earliest restaurant chains in the US and Canada. Started by brothers Samuel and William Childs in 1889 in New York's Financial district it was a pioneer in quick service, restaurant hygiene and was credited with the invention of cafeteria style tray service. According to the Wikipedia article (I know, but that's the only place that had info) the chain "peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with about 125 locations in dozens of markets, serving over 50,000,000 meals a year, with over $37 million in assets at the time." The article claims it was sort of the McDonald's of the early twentieth century. So ubiquitous and popular was the chain it has been immortalized in countless songs, stories, plays and musicals.

12 comments:

  1. My very favourite Margaret Millar, John. I didn't know anything of Child's, but the Doukhobors have been with me since childhood thanks to "Daisy, My Doukhobor Doll" by the comedic folk group the Brothers-In-Law. This was on their Exposé 67 album, which my parents owned. A bit off-colour, but they never forbade me from playing it. I don't think I really began to understand the song until I was ten or so… and, to be honest, it's just about the worst thing the Brothers-In-Law ever recorded, so I didn't listen to it much.

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    1. I remember reading your posts about this book a few years ago and have always had it on my TBR list. This year turned out to be the n year I finally got to it. It's so different from many of her other books. For a long time there is no indication that it is a crime novel at all.

      One new bit of trivia leads to another! Never heard of the Brothers-in-Law till your anecdote above. Were they from Alberta? Apparently that's where most of the Doukhobors have settled.

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    2. The Brother-In-Law were four cops from Windsor. I don't think that they ever gave up their day jobs, but given their popularity in the mid-sixties I expect that they could have. You're correct about Alberta. That said, what with the public nudity and property burnings, the Doukobours once received a good deal of coast-to-coast coverage up here.

      I'm reminded - at this late date - that another book I've reviewed, He Learned About Women, features Doukhobors. A crummy pulp written by someone who may or may not have been named Ted Greendshade, it is not recommended.

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  2. Great review, John. Sounds very interesting. I don't have this book by Millar yet but I will be looking for a copy.

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    1. I was reading two other books at the same time I picked this one up and I read it straight through while the others got set aside. Highly recommended. So very different from any of her other books. You don't think it'll be a mystery at all, but it is so subtly done with several big surprises -- one rather shocking -- in the final chapter.

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  3. You can't go wrong with a Margaret Millar novel. I've been working my way through her mysteries over the years. She's an underrated writer.

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    1. So true, George. I think all of Millar's books ought to be reprinted. Mysterious Press reissued her husband's entire oeuvre. I don't understand why she is still overlooked. At least this book got a reissue about five years ago from Stark House.

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    2. problem solved soon: http://www.syndicatebooks.com/authors/#/margaret-millar/

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    3. Geez, where was I when all this was happening? Thanks for the link, Sarah. Many of Millar's books are already available in digital format from Soho Syndicate. I never keep up on those so I can be forgiven for not knowing. The first paperback omnibus of five novels which includes An Air That Kills will be released September 2016. Oh the waiting for all us fans of print books. I'm eager for the omnibus with her first three novels, two of which have been out of print since they were first published and were *never* reprinted in any edition. Very scarce books for that reason and almost impossible to find.

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  4. Great review John (and happy new year by the way). I have especially fond memories of this one, definitely from Millar's golden period

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    1. Welcome back from Down Under. Hope you had a wonderful trip and visit with your brother's (?) family.

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  5. This sounds good, John. I've never read any Millar books, but maybe I'll begin with this one. Once I'm down south, that is. :)

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