Beast in View / Margaret Millar
Carrol & Graf, 2000, c1955.
I haven't done a Revivals post in a while, but I've found a title that I must share. As far as I can tell, this book has fallen out of print in North America, though apparently you can still find it in the UK and Australia/New Zealand -- and these days, can order a UK edition in via Book Depository. In any case, I found my copy in one of the great resting places of out-of-print fiction -- the Goodwill.
I first discovered Margaret Millar last year, thanks to my husband, who is a reader of Ross Macdonald (otherwise known by his given name, Kenneth Millar, Margaret Millar's husband). We had one of her novels in our old shop stock (The Listening Walls) so I picked it up and read it. And became an instant fan of the much overlooked Margaret Millar. Beast in View won the Edgar Allan Poe Best Novel Award in 1956 and was named as one of the top 100 mystery novels by H.R.F. Keating in his 1987 compilation. I can see why, as it was innovative at the time, creating a plot structure that has been endlessly copied, almost to the point of saturation.
Margaret and Kenneth are both Canadians, originating from a place just down the road from me, in Kitchener, Ontario. There's a wonderful biography of Ross Macdonald that turns out to be really a biography of the two of them, by Tom Nolan. If you are interested in learning more detail about their troubled lives, you will love it.
Millar writes mysteries that often feature women, disaffected and lonely, paired up with laconic, generally ineffective men. The women are the clever ones, and are playing the system whether heroine or villainess. The plot of Beast in View, like that of The Listening Walls, depends on uncertainty, misdirection, and the unexpected. The main character, the painfully isolated and agoraphobic Helen Clarvoe, lives in a hotel, and not a very nice one either. She can't stand her mother, and so upon her father's death and her subsequent inheritance, left home. She has a younger brother Douglas who is completely and finally utterly ineffective at anything he tries to do. He is a lost soul; when we learn more, we discover he is a repressed homosexual, fighting his nature and society's expectations. This was written in 1955, and perhaps we sometimes forget how hard life was for gay men as well as for single women in those years -- both individuals who go against the grain of expectations and propriety. Reading this novel, you will understand just how difficult life is for these two, within the rather seedy circles they seem to run in.
As the story opens, Helen receives a threatening phone call, from someone she finally identifies as Evelyn, her brother's ex-wife. She and Evelyn had been schoolgirl friends, but after the wedding and subsequent annulment debacle they've not kept in touch. Now Helen is terrified that Evelyn is stalking her. Evelyn seems to delight in making malicious phone calls to share dark secrets, which result in more damage than even she could have expected.
The story moves between Helen's and Evelyn's viewpoints, allowing us to see inside both perspectives. We are also given the chance to see them from the outside, as a former friend of Helen's father takes on investigative duties at Helen's request. This, I think, is the one weakness of this book; he falls in love with Helen, suddenly and inexplicably. Perhaps his fathering instincts have been roused by her helplessness. Who knows... but it is not acknowledged or reciprocated, and he is still rather laconic and hard-boiled about it all, so it doesn't overwhelm the narrative.
In any case, the story unravels to reveal much seediness: a photography studio run by a man who turns out to be one of Douglas' partners; a 'massage parlour' for lonely women, run by women; dark bars with phone booths from where Evelyn likes to make her threatening phone calls; control and insult from within Helen's family; extreme loneliness and despair and much more.
It's a slim novel but leaves a huge impression. Millar's writing is so good -- her use of imagery and metaphor is really unsurpassed in my experience of crime novels of this era. She gets at the interior life of her characters in a way that is clear-eyed and yet almost painful. There is no sentimentality in her writing, but she shows a sympathetic eye toward motivation and character, rather than a cold recounting of fact. And the final line of the book -- unforgettable.
I can't reveal much of the plot, or spoilers will be inevitable. I had no idea what this story was about when I began it, which is the only way to really feel the effect of the plotting. If you haven't heard of it, don't look it up for more information. Just find the book and read it for yourself.
I added this as a candidate for revival, as it is so well written while also shocking with its outdated representation of a few different factors, but particularly homosexuality. It wasn't that long ago that this was the norm, and this is an uncomfortable reminder. It's easy to take things for granted when you forget how hard prejudice was to overcome in the first place -- gay rights or feminist advances, both. I find that mystery novels in particular are able to catch the spirit of their era, the unspoken assumptions held by society. This one, while a bit melodramatic, does catch the feeling of a life defined by its surroundings. I thought it was a great read.