Margaret Millar was one half of a very well known writing couple. She met her husband, Kenneth Millar, at a very early age whilst still at school. Kenneth seems to have become smitten with the very forthright Miss Sturm, but it wasn’t until long after they graduated from High School that they really started to get to know each other.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Margaret started to take a real interest in Kenneth Millar. Her mother had recently died and Margaret had decided to drop out of university. Margaret then decided to study psychiatry under her own steam. It was from this meeting onwards that the couple started to seriously date each other.
On the 2nd June 1938, Margaret Strum and Kenneth Millar were married. Very soon after the marriage, Margaret became pregnant with their only child, Linda. Kenneth Millar soon started teaching at their old school and the newly married Margaret Millar, always a vibrant and highly intelligent soul, started to feel very under used. She needed to find a creative outlet for her many talents. Soon afterwards a doctor diagnosed her with a heart ailment, and Margaret was forced to take to her bed for many weeks.
During this time Kenneth was taking books from the library for Margaret to read. It was 1940 and detective fiction was at its height. After reading a crime novel, Margaret thought she could do better - and did exactly that. She wrote her first novel within fifteen days and, with Kenneth’s advice and editing, she re-wrote it twice before sending the manuscript off to the publishers. It was snapped up. Doubleday Doran printed The Invisible Worm in 1941.
Being published changed the Millar’s lives. Kenneth left his teaching job and they all moved to Ann Arbor in 1941. Kenneth taught whilst working towards a doctorate. Margaret didn’t waste a moment and wrote a second and third novel in quick succession. These were The Weak-Eyed Bat and The Devil Loves Me. As with her first book, all three starred Paul Prye, the psychoanalyst with a penchant for detection. Margaret Millar was to become one of the forerunner’s of psychological crime writing.
For some reason, best known only to the author, Millar decided that very
soon after starting her writing career that she wanted to change her main
protagonist. Hence the introduction of Inspector Sands in The Devil Loves
Me. Sands was to return in Millar’s next novel, The Wall of Eyes.
To Margaret’s great consternation, Doubleday turned down The Wall of Eyes as not being in keeping with her first three novels and not being what they, or her readers wanted. Margaret turned to her friend and fellow writer Faith Baldwin. Faith pointed Margaret in the direction of her own agent, Harold Ober. Margaret had not used an agent for her first novels. But Harold soon placed the book with another huge publisher, Random House.
Soon after this Margaret’s husband, Kenneth, also started writing. Soon the household contained not one, but two published writers. Margaret next published Fire Will Freeze, a non-series book, and after that, Inspector Sands had another outing in The Iron Gates (published in the UK under the title: Taste of Fears).
In 1945, Margaret and daughter Linda moved out to where Kenneth was based in San Diego, California. Upon the publication of The Iron Gates, which Random House believed was the big breakthrough that Margaret was due, Margaret fell in love with the place and bought a home in Santa Barbara. This was to be the Miller home for the rest of their lives.
The Iron Gates went in to a third printing and the movie rights were sold to Warners. Margaret was handed the task of writing the screenplay. It was originally offered to Bette Davis who rejected the role, as her character would die two thirds of the way through. It was then offered to Barbara Stanwyck, and nothing more was heard of the project.
Despite the success of The Iron Gates, Millar was never to write another novel with Inspector Sands. Sand’s only outing was in a short story The Neighbours Next Door, written for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1954. All her other novels were to be stand-alone books. Only once, near the end of her writing career, was she to have a series character in the form of Tom Aragon. Again, Tom Aragon only lasted three novels.
Margaret wrote several other books in her early years. Some were suspenseful; some were simply novels without any crime element. She returned to this format some time later with Do Evil In Return. However, it wasn’t until 1955 when Margaret Millar really stepped in to the limelight.
Beast In View was to propel Margaret Millar into the crime-writing stratosphere. It was awarded the Edgar award for best crime novel in 1956 and she was elected President of the Mystery Writers of America that same year. Funnily enough, the book was very nearly not published as while the author was watching TV she realised the film that was playing had a very similar storyline to her own book. Kenneth Millar insisted she re-think before doing anything rash and think of a new twist. Margaret did as he asked and Beast in View was born.
Margaret Millar assured her prominence as a crime writer by following up with An Air That Kills (published in the UK as The Soft Talkers). Margaret was on a roll and came up with such gems as The Listening Walls, A Stranger in my Grave and How Like an Angel. In 1964 she published one of her husband’s favourite’s books, The Fiend.
It wasn’t until six years later that Millar’s next crime novel was published. This was in 1970 and was called Beyond This Point Are Monsters.
It late 1970, the Millar’s daughter Linda tragically died at the age of thirty-one. Margaret Millar announced that she would not be writing again, ever. However, six years later Margaret brought out the first of the Tom Aragon series, Ask For Me Tomorrow. The other Tom Aragon novels were The Murder of Miranda and Mermaid.
Banshee was her next standalone novel to appear in 1983. In that same year, Margaret Millar was awarded the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Margaret Millar’s writing career ended on a high note with Spider Webs in 1986 which some believed harked back to the earlier novels of Millar’s career.
Margaret Millar died of a heart attack in 1994. She was 79 years old.
Review: Beast In View
This was the novel that really put Margaret Millar on the crime writer map. This novel gained her the Edgar Allan Poe award in 1956 for best crime novel.
It is a very short novel, in a version published by Penguin in 1978, it runs to only 158 pages. However, in this short novel, Millar manages to start cranking up the suspense from page 1 when Helen Clarvoe takes a call from a mystery caller who seems able to tell the future and knows what fate is to befall her.
From this simple exchange over a phone, Millar leads us through a maze of psychosis, paranoia and a range of characters that one couldn’t imagine could be fitted in to such a short novel. In my opinion the people in this novel seem too much like caricatures. They are too monstrous to be believable, but I also think that this is exactly what Millar set out to do. She was taking this idea to the extreme and the people simply had to be some of the nastiest around. The characters that really stand out are Miss Clarvoe’s mother and brother. The acknowledgement of Dougie Clarvoe’s homosexuality, especially in a novel written in 1955, shows that Millar wasn’t frightened of dealing with issues that in those days were classed as taboo.
The main body of the novel is about Helen’s lawyer, Blackshear, who seems to be one of life’s welcome mats, and his search for the mystery caller. The feel that things are rapidly spinning out of control is strong in Millar’s writing and the denouement is particularly gruesome and satisfying.
This was the first Margaret Millar novel that I read and I have to admit to not initially being particularly enamoured of the book. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that Taste of Fears landed in my lap. I read it in one sitting and absolutely loved it. Now, many years later, after having re-read Beast In View I can see why it was such a hit, all those years ago.
Margaret Millar was certainly a pioneer in psychological menace novels. She wrote then with huge style and panache, to use a very old fashioned word. She really did know how to tell a story and convey a suspenseful atmosphere. If you read her stories back then, I would certainly advise you to reread them. It is amazing how you can have a different perspective with a few years under your belt! If you have never read any Margaret Millar, I would strongly suggest you try her! I would start with Taste of Fears. That book is, to me, truly Margaret Millar at her best.
Reviewed by C.S.