Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wall of Eyes: Margaret Millar

This novel starts out with an unusual scene and the story itself is unusual. I have not read enough of Margaret Millar's novels to know if this is typical of her mystery novels.

In the novel's very bizarre first scene, Alice Heath - posing as a blind women with guide dog - is going to see a psychiatrist. Alice, who lives with a dysfunctional family of sister and brother, father, and sister's fiance, wants to discuss all of this (especially her blinded by an accident sister) with the doctor.

In the next scene, we return to the house. Kelsey, Alice's sister, is preparing for a visit from her brother's girlfriend. The relationships in the household are strained. Everyone tiptoes around Kelsey and her feelings, trying to please her.

For the first 70 pages (of my 191 page edition), the relationships within the household and outside of the family are explored. At this point, someone in the cast of characters dies, and Inspector Sands is brought in to investigate.

Inspector Sands is fairly unusual for a detective.
He would have preferred to be without face or body, if other people would conform. Since this was impossible he did the next  best thing and ignored his possession of both to such an extent that he could not have described himself accurately on a police bulletin. He knew roughly that he was middle-sized and middle-aged but appeared taller because he was thin, and older, because he was constantly tired.
Regardless, he is my favorite character. He shows up in only one more mystery by Millar, and I wish she had written more novels using him as the detective.

This was the perfect re-introduction to Margaret Millar's mystery novels. I have read some of her books when I was younger but I have little memory of them. This one is close to the basic police procedural mystery, but goes beyond that, delving into the psychology of the family relationships.

Excerpts from reviews from 1943, cited in a book of collected short stories by Millar, The Couple Next Door:
Here is a true adult novel, with wit, satire, fine characterization--and a beautiful plot of crime and mystery...
 -- Elizabeth Bullock in Chicago Sun Book Week
and
Heady mixture of society life, underworld plots, abnormal psychology, good detecting, and better writing.
 -- The Saturday Review
See Brian Busby's review, titled Damaged, Disfunctional, and Decadent Toronto, at The Dusty Bookcase. Brian points out a real location used in the book and includes some great paperback covers.

Margaret Millar wrote some books set in Canada, where she was born, and some set in Southern California, where she lived most of her adult life.

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Publisher:   International Polygonics, 1986 (orig. pub. 1943)
Length:      191 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Inspector Sands, #1
Setting:      Toronto, Ontario,  Canada
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.

26 comments:

  1. Tracy, I have not read Margaret Millar because I have never come across her novels in secondhand bookshops. I like the cover of this book though I'm not sure I'd like the story.

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    1. I haven't come across a lot of books by Millar at the book sales, either, Prashant. I don't know why that is. I think you might like the story. It has a great ending, which I never saw coming.

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  2. Sounds good and I love the cover, but probably one I shall have to forego, having reluctantly come to the conclusion there just isn't enough time for everything!

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    1. It is a nice cover, and it does a good job of conveying the feel of the book. We both have the same problem of too many books. I think you just acquire more new books / authors, I am willing to add more older books / authors.

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  3. Tracy - I'm glad you enjoyed this. I think Millar had a lot of talent. In some ways, the setup for this one is similar to the setup for Millar's Mermaid, which starts with a scene in which a young woman visits an attorney Tom Aragon (the protagonist) asking about her legal rights. She obviously has some mental challenges, but Aragon at least tries to answer her questions. Then we learn about her family (quite dysfunctional). When she disappears, her brother asks Aragon to find her. Lots of solid psychological suspense here, with Millar's way of bringing up dark topics in it.

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    1. I will have to make more effort to add more of Millar's books to my shelves, Margot. I don't run into them at book sales that much. The Mermaid and the other books with Tom Aragon sound interesting.

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  4. The title short story of The Couple Next Door is also about a retired Inspector Sands. As far as not having enough time to read Margaret Millar, I think there should always be time because she is first rate.

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    1. I just discovered that The Couple Next Door was an Inspector Sands story while I was working on this post. A pleasant surprise. I am doing a short story challenge this year and I will get to that story sometime this year.

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  5. I remember reading this one years ago, and thinking it was very clever indeed. I might re-read it...

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    1. It was very clever, Moira. Both the plotting and the suspense were good. Any solution that I could think of seemed just too obvious, and she totally surprised me.

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  6. TracyK: I have not read any of Margaret Millar though I read quite a few of Ross Macdonald's mysteries. She is clearly a gap in my mystery reading. Thanks for highlighting her.

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    1. Bill, she was an interesting person and her books are, for the most part, very different (from what I have read). I will follow up with more of her books.

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  7. I think this is in fact the only one of her books I have not read - she pretty much abandoned a series character until the 1970s when she introduced Tom Aragon, but I think only for 3 books even then. I love her work and really have to get myself a copy of this one now - Thanks TracyK - love that cover, from the IPL edition, right?

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    1. Yes, it is the cover of the IPL edition, Sergio. Even though the other covers are very attractive, this is very cool, and actually conveys the mood of the book.

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  8. Margaret Millar's books have always been a source of inspiration for me. Well plotted with unexpected twists. Haven't read this one but thanks to your review its on my radar. Thanks.

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    1. Definitely this one had a twist I did not expect, David. And very logical once I thought about it.

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  9. Tracy, that list of family members, relationships, faux blind woman, strange Inspector sounds very confusing. I have read one book by Miller, which was more straightforward. Perhaps, in spite of the neat cover, this is not for me.

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    1. Richard, I think my description is more confusing than the actual story, because I was trying to keep it brief and not tell too much of the story. But it is a pretty complex group of characters and I did run into problems keeping them straight. I was more bothered by the dysfunctional relationships which went beyond anything I have ever seen. Still, I enjoyed the book a lot.

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  10. Just catching up today, Tracy: glad you liked this Millar. I've only read a couple, and I really, really liked them.I may have to search for some movie versions. Surely they exist, right?

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    1. Interesting question about movie versions of her books, Rebecca. As far as I can tell, there have been no film adaptations. I read about some TV shows based on her books or stories, but haven't seen any.

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  11. Belated thanks for the link, Tracey. I don't remember having seen this old International Polygonics edition. I've been so critical about their covers in the past, but this one seems quite good. That said, I wonder if it is at all accurate. I remember Alice as walking the guide dog through downtown Toronto, not… where is she anyway? I add that this guide dog is more vicious than any I've ever seen.

    It's been some time since I read the book. I could be way off.

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    1. You are right, Brian. The walk with the dog is on the streets, and not in some outdoorsy setting. And the dog does look ferocious and is not that way at all in the book, although I don't remember the dog much after the first scene. But I still liked the depiction of that first scene, which seemed weird to me... the picture and the scene. And I agree it is nicer than most International Polygonics covers I have seen. I would have gotten the Dell mapback just to add to my collection but there is a limit to what I can spend on books (for the covers or otherwise).

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  12. Tracy, I've enjoyed the Millar books I've read so far (although not many). My current favorite is her well-known Beast in View.

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    1. I look forward to reading more of them, Bev. I don't have Beast in View yet but I will be getting a copy.

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  13. I love Margaret Millar, but I agree, her books are really hard to come by. A great opportunity for some small press to rerelease, I think.... :)

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    1. It would be good to have some new editons of Millar's books. Although I love some of the old paperback covers.

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