Invisible Ink: No 92 - Margaret Millar

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The Independent Culture

In the 1950s, there was a passion for psychoanalysis in American mystery novels.

It underpinned Alfred Hitchcock's best films, Psycho and Vertigo, and provided the motivation for many literary murderers.

Margaret Millar was born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1915, but moved to the United States and married the crime writer Ross Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar). She had wanted to be a writer from her teens, and eventually produced 27 novels and many short stories.

What elevated them was the rich psychology of her characters. She wrote with an unsentimental eye about the lonely, the failed, the insecure and the desperate, succinctly delineating their lives in just a few well-chosen phrases. Her novels were concise and short, very much the style back then, but the ideas they contained were unusually complex, so that her characters took on a larger life of their own.

This is a hard trick to pull off; we're used to modern mysteries clocking in at more than 400 pages with everything explained and examined, often to the detriment of the book. Millar offered you a small window to a larger world. Like Shirley Jackson, she would show you the interior life of her fragile heroines, so that you could watch and empathise as they lost their grip and slipped into madness.

She was brilliant at revealing mental states, and her plots often hinged on the machinations of vulnerable people. Adept at creating powerful visuals, it seems hardly surprising that she made a fan of Hitchcock and ended up working at Warner Brothers. Bette Davis is said to have turned down the lead role in The Iron Gates because she was off-screen for the last third of the book, so the film was never made.

Millar was the master of the surprise ending (exemplified in Beast In View), carefully laying the groundwork that would lead to an entirely appropriate reveal. She used three unconventional detectives, but her real interest lay in exploring the emotional lives of women of the 1940s and 1950s. The Macdonald-Millar marriage was feisty, but the arguments often resulted in the pair's best on-page dialogue. She never collaborated with her husband, but it was said that their greatest collaboration was a mutual commitment to writing.

The books fell from fashion because their psychology dated (one gay character kills himself after the shame of exposure) but now they can be read as period works. Beast In View is finally back in print.