Obituary: Margaret Millar

Margaret Ellis Sturm, writer: born Kitchener, Ontario 5 February 1915; Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award 1956; President, Mystery Writers of America 1957-58, Grand Master Award 1983; Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year Award 1965; married 1938 Kenneth Millar (died 1983; one daughter deceased); died Santa Barbara, California 26 March 1994.

Margaret Millar (she wrote using the family name of her husband, Kenneth, the crime novelist Ross Macdonald) achieved for herself classic status and a unique niche in the history of crime fiction. It was an achievement recognised by her peers with her election as President of the Mystery Writers of America for 1957-58 and their award to her in 1982 of the Grand Master title.

In a dozen novels written between 1955 (A Beat in View) and her last book in 1987 (Banshee) she set a standard for a particular type of mystery novel that has hardly been equalled. They are books that tingle with uneasy suspense, dart with quiet wit and produce gaspingly surprise endings which at the same time carry with them a doomed inevitability. At her best the prose is of the highest quality, with descriptions, equally of physical objects or mental states, that send a sharp ray of extra meaning into the mind of the reader.

It took her, however, a good many years to reach the high plateau. She began her writing career in 1941 with three humorous stories featuring a psychiatrist detective whimsically named Paul Prye. She then turned to a more conventional mystery genre, still with a strong psychiatric element, in books about a Toronto detective, Inspector Sands (born in Ontario, she had completed her education at the University of Toronto). In 1947 she turned with notable success to the mainstream novel, of which she wrote four, and even when she returned to the field of crime she did not immediately find the type of book that suited her cast of mind.

With A Beast in View, the story of the perpetual spinster Miss Clarvee, however, she strode fully armed into the world of thoroughly successful fiction. Her concern to find the truth about her people, Paul Blackshear, that 'tired, detached, balding knight in Harris tweeds', or Mrs Merrick, her of the 'plump face like rising dough', or Mrs Clarvee, the 'starved sparrow preserved in ice', is everywhere. As we read, breathlessly intrigued by the mystery to be revealed, we learn about our fellow human beings, compassionately yet relentlessly portrayed.

And at her best Margaret Millar did more than show us what individual people (yet typical, too) are made up of. In, for example, her 1970 book Beyond This Point Are Monsters she contrived, still within the limits of the mystery story, to remind us of the precariousness of the world we live in. The book takes its title from the words on an old map which the putative victim had, as a boy, pinned to the door of his room. The world of Robert's map, Millar makes his mother say, 'was nice and flat and simple. It had areas for people and areas for monsters. What a shock it is to discover the world is round . . . and nothing separates the monsters and ourselves.' And how exhilarating it was to enter that world and emerge from it, wiser and safe.

Margaret Millar, who became an American citizen and lived in California, visited Britain on occasion, both with her husband before his long last illness and afterwards, when her sight had tremendously deteriorated. But no handicap prevented her sailing into what she saw as the delights of London. Out with Julian Symons on one visit she spurned the restaurants he proposed in favour of a pub lunch, and thereafter insisted daily on that delicious British dish, shepherd's pie. I remember her quiet in a corner at a publisher's party in her honour, quiet but irrepressibly sparky.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

Caught in the web of legal imperialism

The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
Bruce Robinson: Creator of Withnail and I on his new book about Jack the Ripper

'Jack the Ripper has accrued a heroic aura. But I'm going after the bastard'

The deaths of London prostitutes are commonly pinned on a toff in a top hat. But Bruce Robinson, creator of Withnail and I, has a new theory about the killer's identity
Fifa presidential election: What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards