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
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story