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
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

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices