Obituary: Margaret Millar
Thursday 31 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.
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