Friday, October 28, 2016

An Air That Kills

Soho's Ebook Cover
An Air That Kills / Margaret Millar
New York: Soho Press, 2016, c1957.
112 p.

Many people may know by now that I adore Margaret Millar's writing. I've collected what I could of her titles -- they were very hard to find, until now.

I was thrilled to see, a couple of months ago, that Soho Press (based in NY) was republishing all of her work in a collected set. How exciting! I immediately put all of the available volumes on order, and am eagerly awaiting the chance to order the final volume. They are being released in a staggered timeline -- about every two months.

The first volume is already available, and in fact my copy is already at bedside; it's the collection of her best known work, of which I've previously read two (including her stunning The Beast in View -- if you only read one of her works, it has to be that one). They are also releasing each work separately as an ebook with these retro covers if you prefer that format. But I couldn't resist the set: when you've bought them all, look what happens!

Anyhow, I decided to start with An Air That Kills, as it has the unusual setting of Toronto and northwards to Georgian Bay. Unusual for her, because although she was born and raised in the Kitchener Waterloo region, she and her husband Kenneth Millar (better known as mystery writer Ross Macdonald) lived much of their life in Santa Barbara, and she set most of her books in California.

The basic story is this: Ron Galloway is heading up to his Georgian Bay lodge for a fishing trip with his close friends, Harry, Ralph, Bill and Joe . He never makes it. Ron's wife Esther is suspicious, Harry's wife Thelma is involved more closely than we first know, and his disappearance is "solved" halfway through the book. But that is only the beginning of the search for the "why" of this story.

Like most of Millar's stories, it's a book that twists and turns, that makes you think it is about one thing which turns out to be something altogether different in the end. She is brilliant at plotting, depending heavily on psychology and character in her stories. And she is a sly writer, throwing in phrases and words that capture someone effortlessly.

For example, a lawyer in one chapter can't understand the inclination for generosity or understanding in his client. As he leaves her house:
He walked stiffly down the broad stone steps of the veranda and crossed the driveway to his car with ponderous dignity, like a penguin crossing an Antarctic waste, never missing the warm places of the world because he did not know they existed.
Volume 1 of the Collected Works
She also takes time to describe minor characters in such a way that they stick in your head and make you wonder about their stories as well. In this book, there is a young Mennonite girl on the way to school who finds a crucial piece of evidence for the investigation of Ron Galloway's disappearance. She has no idea about that, though, and just admires her find.
Aggie was a quiet child of eleven. She behaved decorously at school and obediently at home, and no one ever suspected what an adventurous spirit lurked behind her brown braids and black bonnet, or what itchy feet were buckled inside her canvas galoshes.
Her character is sketched out so thoroughly in just a few paragraphs that I haven't stopped thinking about her, or about her teacher Miss Barabou, who informs the police. 
Miss Barabou sat in the back of the Buick alone, holding herself stiff and resistant to the feeling of adventure that was growing inside her with every turn of the road and every glance at the Constable's face half visible in the rear-view mirror. He's really quite a nice man. Humorous too. Betty said she heard he's a widower, all his children are grown and he lives by himself. He needs a haircut.
This mystery involves friends, betrayals, class divisions, affairs, secrets, and perceptions shifting over and over. It's classic Millar, full of both insights and misdirections. She draws the characters fully, and gives an insular small-town feeling to a Toronto is which everyone knows everything (or will) - which is so important to the story. I will not give anything away except to say these characters are alive and you will be captivated by their motivations and secrets. And if you know Ontario at all, the geography is just an added bonus to read about and recognize.

Can't wait to read the next two stories in this volume now!


  1. I share your love for Margaret Millar. As far as I'm concerned, she stands with Gabrielle Roy as the two finest Canadian writers of their generation. The reissues are wonderful - and reasonably priced! Like you, I've ordered the entire series. No more old paperbacks to hunt down (though I do love the covers).

    Of the dozen or so Millars I've read to date, An Air That Kills is my favourite. The opening scene lingers. She was a master at dialogue... and the unsaid:

    "When are you going to get over these crazy suspicions?"
    "Dorothy..." She swallowed as she spoke the name, so that he wasn't sure until she repeated it. "Dorothy had no suspicions."


    The Master at Her Zenith? I suppose that is right. Vanish in an Instant and Beast in View also rank as favourites. The others in this volume I've not yet read. Looking forward to them!

    1. I guess I'll read Vanish in an Instant next! I love this reissue -- you're right, it is very affordable and I love the consistency of the design -- that spine image is so fabulous.

      I'm very glad to see her available easily once again, though I probably won't stop picking up vintage copies when I see them since their design is so great.

    2. Speaking of old Millar paperbacks, I think you'll get a charge out of this old post:

      A Millar Mystery and the Art of Deception


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