Rediscovering Female Authors: Margaret Millar

How Like an Angel by [Millar, Margaret]I am a huge fan of the mystery/noir author, Ross MacDonald whose real name was Kenneth Millar.  In case you did not know, he had a wife.

Her name was Margaret Millar.

In their lifetimes, Margaret Millar was as famous as her husband, and of the two, better-paid.  Two of her novels were adopted by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV series (The Beast In View, Rose's Last Summer) and another, The Iron Gates, was optioned by Warner Bros.   The Beast in View won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1956. She was elected "Woman of the Year" by the Los Angeles Times in 1965.   In 1983, she was awarded the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America.  She published over mysteries over a productive career; and yet, Millar's star faded while her husband became part of the crime pantheon (i.e., Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald.)

Until the Library of America published its groundbreaking Women Crime Writers, I had not heard of Margaret Millar.  How is that possible?

Beast in View by [Millar, Margaret]It strikes me as bizarre that Margaret Millar isn't better known.  I love Ross MacDonald's baroque plots, and nothing can diminish my enthusiasm for his work. Having said that, Margaret Millar is a more natural writer: more skilled at subtle characterization and dialogue than MacDonald, more fluid in her prose.  Her novels are alive with social satire, and a view of American marriage and "gender relations" hard to find in American fiction-- and harder still in the landscape of mystery novels.  As for plotting, no one is tighter.

Millar's heroines, in particular, are vivid-- and their fragile, unhappy marriages, more so.  In The Fiend, for example, a woman's philandering husband has divorced her, but continues to "haunt" her life, while another woman pretends her all-American guy isn't fooling around with the rich, sexy next-door neighbor (whose marriage has different flaws.) In How Like An Angel,  a clever, loyal wife tries to bolster an incompetent spouse. Beast in View deals with sexual repression in a completely fresh, frightening way as a young woman runs literally from herself.  Each novel  has its own flavor, its own distinctive mystery.

Unlike  most crime writers, Millar did not create a trademark detective. Her novels have wildly different settings (one involves a religious cult) and so are less "identifiable" (in say, the way Chandler's L.A. mysteries are.)  One reason, perhaps, she was forgotten.  Or, it could be, as the astute Terry Teachout has written, that Millar's  success kept in her hardcover, and away from the emerging pulp fiction paperback world (in which reprints were cheap.)  Whatever the reason, her obscurity is undeserved. She is a terrific writer, among the best in American crime fiction.

Happily, times change. Most of Margaret Millar novels are now available through Soho Syndicate in Kindle editions-- read them, and see for yourself.   
Post a Comment
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...