Classic Crime

Margaret Millar

Margaret Ellis Sturm the daughter of the townís mayor was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in 1915, but spent most of her adult life in the U.S. in California.

Margaret Millar was one half of a very well-known writing couple. She met her husband, Kenneth Millar, whilst still at school. It wasnít 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 Kennethís 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 Millarís lives. Kenneth left his teaching job and they all moved to Ann Arbor in 1941. Kenneth taught whilst working towards a doctorate. Margaret didnít waste a moment and wrote a second and third novel, The Weak-Eyed Bat and The Devil Loves Me in quick succession. As with her first book, these starred Paul Prye, the psychoanalyst with a penchant for detection. Margaret Millar was to become one of the forerunnerís of psychological crime writing.

For some reason, best known only to the author, Millar decided that very soon after starting her writing career she wanted to change her main protagonist. Hence the introduction of Inspector Sands in The Devil Loves Me. Sands was to return in Millarís next novel, The Wall of Eyes.

To Margaretís 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 three novels. But Harold soon placed the book with another huge publisher, Random House.

Soon after this Margaretís husband, Kenneth, also started writing. Soon the household contained not one, but two published writers. Margaret next published Fire Will Freeze, a standalone, 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 Warner Bros. Margaret was handed the task of writing the screenplay. It was originally offered to Bette Davis who rejected the role. 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. Sandsí only outing was in a short story The Couple 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 novels without any crime element. She returned to this format some time later with Do Evil In Return. However, it wasnít until 1955 when Margaret Millar really stepped in to the limelight.

Beast In View came in the years when Millar is described at her zenith with such titles as An Air That Kills (a.k.a. The Soft Talkers) and The Listening Walls, was to propel Margaret Millar into the crime-writing stratosphere. It was awarded the Edgar award for best crime novel in 1956 for Beast In View and 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.

Millar was on a roll and came up with such gems as Vanish In An Instant, The Listening Walls, A Stranger in my Grave and How Like an Angel. In 1964 she published one of her husbandís favouriteís books, The Fiend.
It wasnít until six years later that Millarís next crime novel was published. This was in 1970 and was called Beyond This Point Are Monsters.

In late 1970, the Millarís 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. In her own words she said this novel just wouldnít leave her alone until she took herself back to the typewriter. 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. Millarís writing career ended on a high note with Spider Webs in 1986 which some believed harked back to the earlier novels of Millarís career. She was not to publish anything more. The next publication under her name was a collection of her few stories, long and short published by Crippen and Landru under the title, The Couple Next Door in 2005.

Margaret Millar died of a heart attack in 1994. She was 79 years old.

Review: Vanish in an Instant

Virginia Barkeley is a nice, well brought-up girl. So what is she doing wandering through a snow storm in the middle of the night, blind drunk and covered in someone else's blood?

When Claude Margolis' body is found a quarter of a mile away with half-a-dozen stab wounds to the neck, suddenly Virginia doesn't seem such a nice girl after all. Her only hope is Meecham, the cynical small-town lawyer hired as her defence. But how can he believe in Virginia's innocence when even she can't be sure what happened that night? And when the answer seems to fall into his lap, why won't he just walk away?

I have been singing the praises of Milarís work since the early 90ís. Even before her death in 1994, her work was mainly out of print with only a few titles re-published now and again. As the years stretched on, year after year I could only buy Millarís books from second hand bookshops or online. Many a time I have pushed a novel of Millarís in to a friendís hand or given one as a Christmas present. Every time, they have immediately become a fan of hers. In recent years, Millar has had a renaissance. With the rise of Domestic Noir, Milar who is considered one of the Godmothers of Domestic Noir, has come to the attention of publishers and readers alike.

Vanish In An Instant was the start of Millarís writing zenith and is one of my favourite books she wrote. Millar was similar to another writer of that time, Patirica Highsmith who also gained a reputation for being difficult, and like Highsmith was largely ignored by her homeland, but sold in huge numbers across Europe. Maybe it was their convoluted personalities that made these women write such cracking and original novels. Millarís prose is pared down and concise. She was not one to fill her books with stuffing. Every word, every sentence drives her story on. Her characters are complex and not easy to like, with everyone having a streak of acid running through them. They all feel they are owed after such hard times. Meecham the lawyer, also has a warped sense of life and the people around him, but his sense of truth, however skewed, wonít stop him until he discovers the truth of Margolisí murder.

With a great sense of time, place and character, Millar carefully unfolds her drama until the surprise ending with a twist you wonít see coming. When you read this book, you will understand why one of Millarís greatest cheerleaders was none other than the great Raymond Chandler himself. Now, other great writers such as Laura Lippman and Val McDermid join the chorus of praise for this womanís work and Vanish In An Instant still stands the test of time over sixty years later. Although it shows a snapshot of 1952, it is still a great psychological thriller due to Millarís writing. I really hope Vanish In An Instant will be the first of many Millar re-issues published by Pushkin Vertigo. If you havenít tried Millar before, then you are in for a Noir treat, indeed!

Reviewed by: C.S.

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