Friday 19 March 2010

Forgotten Book - Wall of Eyes

Margaret Millar, Canadian born, and wife of Ross Macdonald, was a brilliant crime writer. Many people – including me – prefer her books to those of her highly successful and talented husband. My latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is an early Millar from 1943, Wall of Eyes.

Millar excelled at openings and this book begins splendidly:

‘They moved briskly along the street, the girl carefully indifferent to the stares of the people who passed, the dog unaware of them. He padded along looking neither to the left nor right, his eyes careless and shifty. But when he came to a hole in the sidewalk, he guided Alice around it and she felt the firm gentle tug of his harness and followed him.

I wonder if he knows I’m not blind, Alice thought.’

This strikes me as very clever writing – creating a situation, and then changing the reader’s perspective on it in a single sentence. You really have to keep reading.

Millar’s early detective, Inspector Sands, features in this book: ‘He had no strong sense of identity…Because he lived in a vacuum he was able to understand and tolerate and sometimes to like the strange people he hunted.’ I have always been rather sorry that Millar abandoned Sands, although her later books were, in the main, even better than this one – and this one is very good.

The late reviewer Matthew Coady said: ‘In the whole of crime fiction’s distinguished sisterhood, there is no-one quite like Margaret Millar.’ I agree. Matthew was a terrific judge (not only because he reviewed my debut novel kindly!) and anyone who has not read Margaret Millar has a treat in store.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for profiling Margaret Millar. Most people aren't aware of how talented she was. I confess that I haven't read this particular novel, so I'm glad that you mentioned it - something else to add to my TBR list - but I agree completely about Millar.

seana graham said...

I love Ross MacDonald's work, so you'll have a hard road convincing me that these are better. Nevertheless, I've been remiss in not trying her, especially since I've only ever heard good things.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Imagine, a Canadian who can write! I would love to look into this fellow Canadian.


Martin Edwards said...

I'm sure you will all enjoy Millar's work. She was one of the great post-war crime novelists.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Ooohh....nice beginning. Thanks for the tip on Millar.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Minnie said...

Seconded - with huge enthusiasm! Discovered her work for myself about 25 years ago, and was struck by her spare, elegant style; her wry, ironic humour, and all those acutely-observed characters + plots. She was a classicist, and I believe that underpins all the foregoing. But still there's something fresh about her: opening one of her novels and beginning to read, there's a sense of immediacy - you're plunged straight into her 'world'.

Dean James said...

Though I'm a big fan of Ross Macdonald, I have to concur that Margaret Millar was a more interesting writer in a number of ways. Macdonald settled into a pattern with his plots, while Millar never did. She was brilliant at waiting to resolve the key question of the crime novel in the very last sentence of the book. She also was eerily prescient about societal changes, as witnessed by books like How Like an Angel. She is one of the greatest crime writers of the 20th century, and she deserves more recognition.

Dorte H said...

Oh, I like that little scene. Well done, Ms Millar!

Another writer I should try, but I try not to put too many on my list in one single day. I ordered six books yesterday so I still feel a bit extravagant.

Nikki Thornton said...

Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.

Steve Steinbock said...

Not to be redundant, but I concur with all the earlier comments. When I was a kid, my father introduced me to Ross Macdonald's "Lew Archer" books. I enjoyed them very much, but found he was often telling the same story over and over.

With Margaret Millar, I found fresh plots and really profound writing. Some of her books (Stranger in My Grave comes to mind) kept me stunned all the way to the final sentence.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments.
Nikki, very best wishes for your success!
Steve, A Stranger in my Grave gae me the idea for a sub-plot in my fourth book, Yesterday's Papers.

vegetableduck said...

I greatly admire Millar too. I don't want to turn this into a Ross Macdonald bash session, but I read a succession of his books and often felt like I was reading the same one over and over. His 1960s are all about resolving family psychodramas, and all the characters and situations seem the same. His earlier books are tougher, more obviously influenced by Chandler, but I prefer Chandler. There was one early one, however, The Ivory Grin, that I thought was quite clever and original too.

Millar though is a succession of varied riches: the psychohorror of Iron Gates, the bizarre humor of Fire Will Freeze, the beautifully plotted puzzles of Rose's Last Summer and The Listening Walls, the humanistic tales How Like an Angel and The Fiend, etc. I think pretty much everything she wrote up to Ask For Me Tomorrow in 1976 is great (there's a falling off in the later books). Millar is very good at "suspense" but also has this Christie-like skill with devising clues and twists. She's great.