Dec 012013
 

Pardon me as I brush off the dust that’s gathered on this website over the fall. I do plan to post more frequently in 2014, timed with news I can’t wait to announce after the New Year. The month of December will be chock full of links to other pieces about the great women included in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, plus any other anthology-related news that comes up.

With that in mind, here is Kathleen Sharp’s excellent essay on the life and work of Margaret Millar in the Los Angeles Review of Books, whom she introduces thusly:

Perhaps you’ve heard of “Maggie” Millar. She’s a literary suspense author who, at the onset of World War II, explored female characters as they battled the daily accretions of frustrated ambition and blocked power, often while trying to keep a grip on their own sanity. Later, in the 1960s, Maggie’s perspective expanded, and she delved into the mores and corruptions of a stratified society that resembles our own today. She dissected the delusions of the Golden State at a time when the rest of the country still believed in the eternal sunshine of the Edenic kind. The people who lived in this paradise, and lived in Millar’s fiction, often reached far beyond their financial or moral means, playing dangerous games that pitted loved ones against each other. Sometimes, these people escaped the law, but they always wound up serving some sort of life sentence.

You’ll want to read the rest. Millar emerges as an even more complicated woman than I banked upon.

Nov 222013
 
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Lives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman
Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 978-0143122548
384 pages $16.00
Publication date: August 2013

Yes, it's a brand new book and it's my choice for Friday's Forgotten Book. I guess this is a cheat of sorts. Since many of these women writers are utterly forgotten (but not by me -- I've written about many of their novels here) and this review is months overdue (I finished this book back in August) it's time to get it up on the blog.

Sarah Weinman has gathered together an impressive array of woman mystery writers who were instrumental in the development of a subgenre she likes to call domestic suspense. The anthology brings together pioneers in crime fiction like Margaret Millar, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong with stalwarts like Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, and Dorothy B. Hughes. Rounding out the group are the modern and all too often forgotten writers like Nedra Tyre and Celia Fremlin, and wonderful new finds like Joyce Harrington and Barbara Callahan. There are a total of fourteen women represented with a variety of stories that run the gamut from creepy and atmospheric to outright nasty. There is even a surprise happy ending delivered in "Everybody Needs a Mink", an atypically lighthearted story from Hughes normally known for her novels of paranoia and dread.

I would’ve liked a better story from Margaret Millar than her oft anthologized "The People Across the Canyon", a story even if you have never read it before will seem very familiar as it recycles an idea used too frequently in crime fiction. The story from Shirley Jackson, a master of both the novel and short story, is unfortunately the weakest and least satisfying in the collection. There has to be a better example from her pen than "Louisa, Please Come Home" which lacked bite and pizazz compared with the quality of the others selected. But the rest of the stories each have something to recommend them. Below are highlights from half the collection.

"A Nice Place to Stay" by Nedra Tyre
Tyre was a regular contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine where she published over forty short stories. In this tale she captures the voice of a loner woman whose only desire is a comfortable life, good food and a nice place to stay. An opportunistic lawyer jumps on her case and turns her into tool to advance his career. But the narrator has a surprise in store for all his hard work.

"Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen
I am a big fan of Nielsen’s novels and also her TV scripts for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In this story she takes the old trope of the anonymous phone caller and gives it a Nielsen triple twist. The story is notable for her narrative trick of weaving back and forth between the past and present in order to build suspense.

"Lavender Lady" by Barbara Callahan
An example of the creepy domestic suspense story and very well done. The story tells the origins of a popular folk tune as narrated by a singer/songwriter. Slowly we learn how her muse has affected her creative life. The repetition of the song lyrics are like the chants and doggerel of doom so often found in fairy tales.

"Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
The most experimental and mature of the lot. As in The Judas Cat and The Clay Hand, both early novels about how violence uncovers the corruption of small town’s population, Davis does in miniature and with an economy of words another story of rural life and crime. The narrative structure is layered with ambiguity and requires assiduous reading to glean all the subtleties. The relationships are revealed through bare bones dialogue and minimal description. It’s almost like a radio drama. Quite an impressive feat, loaded with sharp details and yet it’s the one of the shortest pieces.

"The Heroine" by Patricia Highsmith
As I was reading this one I couldn’t help but think of “The Turn of the Screw” and movies like The Nanny. Another one of those stories about a possibly mentally ill woman left in charge of children. Lucille has an obsessive need to prove herself and suffers from a few delusions. You know something is odd about her but you keep hoping that she isn’t a crazed lunatic. The ending is a shocker.

Joyce Harrington (a former actress) confesses
she writes by the Stanislavski method
"Mortmain" by Miriam Allen DeFord
Probably the nastiest story in the collection. Reminiscent of the kind of macabre irony Roald Dahl perfected in his short fiction. DeFord tells the story of a greedy nurse taking care of an ailing deputy sheriff and how her scheme to steal money from his safe goes horribly wrong. Has a gasp inducing ending proving this story to be the only true noir tale in the collection.

For me the gem of the book is "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington, a writer whose work I knew nothing about until I read this tale. It’s a little masterpiece. Each carefully chosen word rings true. The brilliant use of weaving imagery from the work on the loom to the spider spinning its web, the language used to evoke the serenity of Mrs. Moon’s state of mind as she plots revenge on her womanizing husband –- it’s all perfect. Here is the epitome of what Weinman talks about in her informative introduction defining the aspects of domestic suspense. If I were you I’d save it for the very last and savor it like a fine wine. It’s really that good.
 Posted by at 5:30 am
Oct 142013
 
I've had this on my laptop for some time now, but I only now delved into Sarah Weinman's new anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives that has been out for a month so. As you probably know, this anthology covers the ground I've mined here in this blog from time to time: noir written by women and about women, not noir written about hardboiled and cynical men, but noir written about good, ordinary women who have babies and their work and what not. Most of the stories in the book come from the period between the 1940s and the 1970s, but there are some exceptions.

I've only read Sarah Weinman's foreword and the author introductions, but the book seems like a very solid piece of research, and the short story choices feel balanced. I think I can safely say this comes highly recommended from me. Check also Sarah Weinman's great website for the book, it has lots of additional information on the authors and their work. For my other pieces on female noir - or domestic suspense, if you will -, navigate via keywords.
Jun 172013
 

“Agatho” at Mysterious Matters, the pseudonymous editor whose blog is among my favorites, made a great case for why Margaret Millar should rank up as the World’s Best Mystery Novelist in this 2009 essay:

She was master of a technique I call “swinging the camera.” She’d acquaint you very intimately with a character for several chapters, then suddenly swing her camera onto another character to move the story to its next point. You never knew what Millar didn’t want you to know, but if you weren’t so absorbed in the book, you could have seen what was coming–which means that she was also a master of fair play, of setting up her surprise endings in a way that makes the reader thunk his head and say, “Of course! How did I not see that?” Every character has secrets, and when you read enough Millar, you know that–and yet the endings still come as a surprise. She also knew how to do a tight-lipped, wiseass detective, who consistently delivered a series of jaw droppingly good, cynical one-liners….

But please read the whole piece. “Agatho” also squares in on one of the key reasons Millar now ranks on my own World’s Best list: “The sharpness of the writing never wavers, and the effect is incantatory.” Indeed!

Mar 052013
 
My Name Is Julia Ross, a neat suspense movie, has been a favorite among the film festival circuit and revival movie houses for years now. Early last year it was finally released on DVD as part of Columbia Picture Film Noir Classics, Volume 3. After months of trying to find a store in Chicago that had it for rental I stumbled across it through sheer luck when I found an online version. But like many movies which I have been waiting to see for years (I recall a similar experience when I finally got to watch The High and the Mighty) I was a little disappointed. For me it was an entertaining film with a few surprises, but due to its predictable and very familiar plot a movie that didn't thrill me as much as I had hoped for. Still, there's much to recommend the film.

Based on The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, an out of print vintage mystery I have not read, it tells the story of Julia Ross, a down on her luck and unemployed secretary played with conviction and glamour by Nina Foch. In the opening scene Julia deals with Bertha, a bitter charwoman (Joy Harrington in nifty but unbilled minor role) who taunts her for being behind on the rent and out of work. "Secretary? Sittin' an' writin' all day. Call that work?" she sneeringly throws in Julia's face when the desperate young woman sees an ad that seems perfect for her. Julia rushes out of the boarding house to the Allison Employment Agency to apply.

At the employment office she learns of the odd requirements: no family ties, no boyfriends, and the job will require her to move in and live with her employer. Julia has no choice. She needs the job badly and wants to pay up on her back rent. A simple phone call to Mrs. Hughes by the hatchet faced Miss Allison (Anita Bolster) seals the deal. Julia must wait to meet Mrs. Hughes who just happens to be in the neighborhood for the interview and final approval. She shows up and it's Miss Froy from The Lady Vanishes. Whether she's playing a spy or an English matriarch Dame May Whitty is always a joy to watch. Julia also meets her gloomy but sharply dressed son Ralph (George MacReady with his signature thrilling and gravelly voice). They hire Julia immediately. All shake hands, Julia receives an advance, Mrs. Hughes urges her to go shop for new clothes and they'll meet her at the house later in the evening.

With Julia gone we now learn that the trio are up to no good. Mrs. Hughes drops her charming facade and cries out a bit sinisterly, "She's perfect!" Ralph adds cryptically, "There's even a small resemblance." Mrs. Hughes calls for Peters, a man who spied upon them from a closet. "Did she see you?" "No, madam," he says. "I made sure of that," confirms Miss Allison who we now know is really Sparks. "See that you keep it that way, especially at the house," Mrs. Hughes orders in a stern voice. They close up the agency and head on home. What have they in store for Julia? This doesn't seem like it's going to be your average everyday sittin' an' writing' job.






Julia is being groomed as a replacement for Marion Hughes, Ralph's wife. As the title implies Julia tries to get everyone to believe she is not Marion, but the Hughes family and the servants have done a wonderful job of covering their tracks. Everyone in town and everyone who visits the house think Marion is recovering from a mental breakdown. As the story unfolds we watch Julia do her best to escape and get word to her only ally Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno), a neighbor and friend back at the boarding house, while the villains manage to outwit her at every attempt. Slowly we learn what happened to the real Marion and pray that the same thing does not happen to Julia.

Nina Foch, gorgeous and frightened and later one feisty woman
George MacReady - he loves his knives
Dame May Whitty - Mother knows best
Anita Bolster starts the plot spinning with a phone call
Roland Varno - our hero
Joy Harrington - Bertha is nobody's friend
 The combination of smart script, moody camera work, and a director with a keen eye for cinematic artiness raise this familiar story out of the realm of the ordinary. Though utterly predictable from the moment the plot is revealed the movie nonetheless manages to hold the viewer's interest with an enviable panache. The music, the snappy line delivery, the performances from the entire cast -- it's a stylish little movie there's no doubt about it. And there are odd and surprising details that seem to come out of nowhere.  Mrs. Sparks draws Mrs. Hughes' attention to Ralph offscreen. Cut to Ralph on the couch seen from behind.  He's ripping a negligee to shreds with a pocket knife! Or an entire scene in which we see only Julia's frightened eyes over Ralph's shoulder while Julia and Ralph carry on their dialogue in voiceover.

The expert photography is by Burnett Guffey. After decades of filming B movies and programmers Guffey would go on to win two Academy Awards for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie & Clyde. Muriel Roy Bolton does an admirable job with the economical screenplay by quickly packing in pertinent backstory and stripping down the exposition to its bare essentials so that the meat of the story with all its suspense filled moments can get moving quickly. Even the melodramatic score mostly pulled from stock music written for other Columbia Pictures' films enhances the movie.

But it is largely due to director Joseph H. Lewis that My Name Is Julia Ross is a movie repeatedly mentioned as a something of a mini-masterpiece in suspense films. Lewis was a master at taking potboilers and turning them into entrancing movies that you can't turn away from. Each shot is a work of art. It also helps that in ...Julia Ross he had a top notch cast of talented actors. My Name is Julia Ross was supposed to be filmed in only ten days but studio executives were so impressed with what Lewis was doing they allowed eight extra days so he could produce the best movie possible. Lewis would go on to direct other thrillers like So Dark the Night, Gun Crazy (now something of a cult movie), and the melodramatic and brutally sadistic police drama The Big Combo. Each one shows his attention to detail, performance subtleties, and atmospheric lighting and framing.
 Posted by at 8:42 am
Jun 012012
 
Today’s selection of “forgotten books” posts on the Web highlights the many exceptional works of Margaret Millar (1915-1994), who won the 1983 Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement from the Mystery Writers of America and was, not insignificantly, married to fellow novelist Kenneth Millar--better known as Ross Macdonald. “During the 1950s the Canadian author Margaret Millar proved herself, along with Patricia Highsmith, to be arguably the great innovator of the postwar crime and mystery genre,” explains Sergio Angelini of Tipping My Fedora. “She was certainly crucial stepping stone in the later development of such notable figures as Ruth Rendell.”

Some of the Millar books included in this blog tribute are The Listening Walls, A Stranger in My Grave, Do Evil in Return, Wall of Eyes, An Air That Kills, How Like an Angel, Mermaid, Fire Will Freeze, The Devil Loves Me Best, and The Fiend. “Forgotten books” organizer Patti Abbott features three additional Millar novels in her own blog. All of this reminds me of just how few Margaret Millar books I’ve read myself. I guess I had better start investigating further.

Beyond the notes on Millar’s works, today’s odes to oldies include write-ups on Geoffrey Norman’s Blue Chipper, Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari, Carter Dickson’s The Reader Is Warned and The Department of Queer Complaints, Frederick Nebel’s But Not the End, James R. McCahery’s Grave Undertaking, and Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine.

Again, clickety-clack here for the full rundown.
Jun 012012
 
A couple of American women from San Francisco are vacationing in Mexico City. Amy Kellogg is married, but her accountant husband Rupert is back home in San Francisco. Amy's lifelong friend Wilma Wyatt is twice divorced and somewhat bitter, and Amy has reason to suspect that Wilma is having an affair with Rupert. After an evening of drinking with an American grifter who is also in Mexico City, Wilma commits suicide by leaping from the balcony of her fourth-floor hotel room.

Or does she?

Summoned by the American embassy, Rupert goes to Mexico City to pick up a distraught Amy and take her back to San Francisco. But they've been home less than a week when Amy disappears, leaving behind a letter saying that no one should try to find her.

Or does she?

I think you can see where this plot is going. THE LISTENING WALLS is one of those "nothing is what it seems" novels, and it takes Amy's worried brother and the private detective he hires to sort everything out.

This is the first book by Margaret Millar that I recall reading, and while this sort of psychological suspense novel isn't my usual sort of thing, I enjoyed it. Millar writes very well, with nice touches of characterization and droll humor, although the old-fashioned technique of hopping around among different points-of-view within the same scene might bother some modern readers. It bothered me a little until I got used to it. Millar's plot twists are also very skillful. Just when you think you've got everything figured out, some new angle comes along, and I really wasn't sure what was going to happen until the very end of the book.

I don't know if I'll read anything else by Millar, at least not any time soon. I have a hard time keeping my attention on books that are slow to develop, no matter how well-written they are. That impatience is my fault, not the author's. But I think THE LISTENING WALLS is a good book, and I'm glad I read it.
Jun 012012
 
There is no doubt about it.  Margaret Millar is first and foremost a great storyteller.  Her husband, Ross Macdonald, once confessed a deep envy of her ability as a natural born writer as well. The famous example quoted in Tom Nolan's biography (as much a life story of the two crime writers as it is a bio of the creator of Lew Archer)  goes like this:
"F'rinstance" -- and he recited to me a sentence of hers with a simile in it: "Her question trailed off into the room like a faint cigarette track in the air, or something like that. The comparison between the question and the...smoke trailing off, was so perfect; the ear is so fine and the tuning so good, there."
When you combine a "natural born" talent for crafting perfect sentences like the one above with tightly plotted stories and characters who speak dialog with unique voices and who sound like people you meet in everyday life you get an end result that is all too rare in contemporary crime fiction:  real novels with real plots that both entertain the reader as mysteries and stimulate the mind with human insight and literary power.  No better example of Millar's triple whammy of talent can be found than in A Stranger in My Grave (1960), a mystery story that also happens to be a timely modern novel about birth origins, children and parenting.

A Stranger in My Grave features one of Millar's favorite crime fiction metaphors - nightmares.  As early as her sixth novel The Iron Gates (1945), her second mystery novel set in her home province of Ontario, Canada, she was playing with the idea of dreams -- more often than not nightmares -- and how those subconscious images interplay with a character's waking life.  In the case of The Iron Gates the nightmare was an expression of a repressed guilt over a past crime and in that novel another character exploits that repression in one of the most wicked forms of revenge ever perpetrated in contemporary crime fiction.  Fifteen years later Millar returned with a similar idea in A Stranger in My Grave. 

Daisy Harker dreams of visiting her own grave and hires Steve Pinata, bail bondsman and sometime private detective, to help her learn more about the date carved into the gravestone. When the two visit the cemetery they discover the grave exists exactly as described down to the unusual tree standing guard over the site. The mystery deepens when the name on the gravestone -- Carlos Camilla -- means absolutely nothing to Daisy.  The investigation then ceases to be less of the search for a "lost day" and rather the search for the connection between Camilla and Daisy.  That search will lead to Daisy's work as a volunteer in a clinic and Juanita Garcia, a woman who had a seemingly incidental contact with Daisy four years ago.

Apart from the tantalizing plot, its labyrinthine intricacies, and the near Dickensian way in which Millar manages to connect all the characters in the story there is an abundant richness of life in her fully realized and original characters. There are too many scenes I want to list as wondrous vignettes that serve as excellent examples of how Millar uses action to reveal character.  She is in many ways more of a dramatist than a novelist for she fully understands the first rule of theater and all good dramatic works -- show rather than tell.

Among the highlights are a scene in which a dog's love for Daisy is used to express her state of mind; the curmudgeon diner owner, Mrs Brewster and how she uses her denim apron as a theatrical prop as an extension of her personality; the contrast between Stan Fielding, Daisy's father and his new wife, Murial, a not too bright woman deeply in love with the man who sees his dreaming and eccentric way of speaking as signs of sophistication rather than posturing and humbuggery as most people do; Fielding's reluctance to steal a woman's purse in order to get the keys to her car -- the only thing he wants to take from her -- and how his hesitancy leads to his being caught; a powerful scene when Juanita, in a furor, attacks a locked door in the home of her religiously obsessed mother by breaking down the door with a crucifix.

And there are, of course, her words:
The promise was as frail as a bubble; it broke before his car was out of the driveway.
She had never called him Steve, and the sound of it coming from her made him feel for the first time that the name was finally and truly his own. [...] [H]e would always be grateful to her for this moment of strong, sure identity.
Time had become a living, breathing thing, attached to him as inexorably as a remora to a shark's belly, never sleeping or relaxing its grip...

The marvel of this particular book and what is most striking in my mind more than any other of Millar's is the structure and the recurring themes of childlessness, orphans, and parenting styles.  Read today in the context of negligent parents, child abuse and pop culture figures like "the Octomom", the story in  A Stranger in my Grave is amazingly timely. Beyond that timeliness is Millar's unique structure of interspersing snippets from a letter as chapter epigraphs. As the story of Daisy unfolds and the hidden truth behind her odd dream is ultimately revealed we also read a letter than was meant to be delivered to her years ago.  Only in the final chapter to we get to read the full letter along with Daisy and discover the truth at the same time she does. Only in the final words, nearly in the final sentence, is the power of the novel fully felt.

For an in-depth study of Millar's work, her relationship with her husband, and how she taught him how to be a better dialog writer read this article originally published in the Fall 2001 issue of Mystery Readers International.

Margaret Millar is the featured author this week for "Friday's Forgotten Books." There should be several reviews of her books from the regular contributors. To learn who reviewed a Millar book, and for all the other books featured this week, see the list at our host site, Patti Abbot's blog.

The Crime & Detective Novels of Margaret Millar
The Invisible Worm (1941)
The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942)
The Devil Loves Me (1942)
Wall of Eyes (1943)
Fire Will Freeze (1944)
The Iron Gates (1945)
Do Evil in Return (1950)
Rose's Last Summer (1952)
Vanish in an Instant (1952)
Beast in View (1955)
An Air That Kills (1957)
The Listening Walls (1959)
A Stranger in My Grave (1960)
How Like an Angel (1962)
The Fiend (1964)
Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)
Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976)
The Murder of Miranda (1979)
Mermaid (1982)
Banshee (1983)
Spider Webs (1986)
 Posted by at 10:29 am

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