Although her books are beginning to come back into print at last, and most (if not all) of her oeuvre is available for digital download, Margaret Millar is a name sadly lost to the annals of history. She was actually a successful writer for a long time who won an Edgar Award in 1956 for Beast In View. Had she lived today, she’d be right up there with women such as Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman who dominate bestseller lists with their exciting blend of thriller and noir. But because because her thrillers don’t fit the charming, cozy style of Agatha Christie and her many imitators, Millar has been remembered for decades as “Ross Macdonald’s wife who also was a decent writer.”
Which is not fair. Millar’s writing floated her husband (real name Kenneth Millar) in his early days until he was able to sell books of his own. And her style of psychological mystery is timeless. It will not comfort. There’s nothing comfortable about reading a Margaret Millar book. Nor will it take you to the edge like Patricia Highsmith. Instead, Millar is able to get to the foundation of human behavior through her plots and characters to turn in something readable and compelling.
This one is, to my knowledge the first of the Tom Aragon books, her only series of novels. Aragon isn’t a Marlow or Spade type: he’s a guy who does his job. He’s good at it but not great. Think about a less-slimy Jake Gittes from Chinatown. This particular job has him going down to Mexico to track a woman’s ex-husband for personal and financial reasons. But as he delves further into the mystery, all is not as it seems.
The all is not as it seems part is not Millar’s strong suit. I had a good idea of what was going on halfway through. But its when she pulls back to reveal the characters motivations that the reader realizes how talented she is. Here are humans driven by desire, even if it is fleeting due to age and illness. And desire still demands a price. The price is the misery of the characters expressed in this book.
As she is becoming re-published once more, I hope more people check out Margaret Millar’s work. And if you’re looking for a place to start, this is as good as any.