Sunday, July 27, 2014

Beyond This Point are Monsters

Beyond This Point Are Monsters / Margaret Millar
New York: Random House, 1970.
213 p.

This mystery with the garish cover  is one I picked up used; I always buy Margaret Millar whenever I can find her, despite any weird covers (ack, the bad fonts!) and in nearly any condition -- she's so hard to come by! And that's a shame, because she is such an interesting writer.

This particular title, though, is probably not the strongest one I've read, but with Millar that still means it's pretty great. It's written as a look back at the facts of an event of a year ago: Robert Osborne went outside to get the dog, an hour later he hadn't returned, and in fact was never seen again. Evidence points to the Mexican labourers he had working on his ranch, but before he can be declared dead a year later, all the witnesses must come forward once again.

Devon, his young bride from the East Coast, is central to the story, as is his mother, a woman who is unable to accept that her son is really dead. As these two interact, we begin to see the cracks in the story, and the truth seeps through.

The structure of the book is set up as a courtroom drama: much of the action takes place as evidence is being given, or as people are preparing to give evidence. You get a sense of how the tension of the past year has affected the people involved, as they begin to show their stress. It was quite fascinating as a psychological character study; and yet, the story is so dated in regard to gender roles and expectations -- it's hard to remember the daily drudgery of such expectations, which are simply taken for granted in this tale. That's one of the things I find valuable about reading books written about their contemporary setting -- they reveal the basic assumptions that are so much a part of that setting that they aren't even stated. I think mysteries are specifically good at this, as they depend so much on what is 'normal' and what isn't in a society, in order to make clear what their unusual event is, and why is it unusual.

In any case, this book includes one more cracked mother who is completely codependent with her son, something that is slowly revealed as the story progresses, until the macabre Millar touch finishes it off. (as an aside, I find it interesting how often the books you choose to read, randomly, fall in with one another thematically; similar themes, tropes, character types etc. turn up one after another...)

The physical setting of this book is also well done. The parched California ranch, full of itinerant Mexican labourers, shimmers into view like a mirage in the heat, as Millar describes the neglect of the ranch and the vanishing of the suspected workers. She draws on small details to make the setting very real to the reader.

It's a rather slow-moving novel, for something described as a 'thriller' -- but I think it's more of a psychological tale with a mystery involved in it. The writing is accomplished, the characters are weirdly individual, the plot makes a kind of sense, and it has a definite atmosphere to it. Here's the "title drop", coming early on in the novel:
The world of maps is nice and flat and simple. It has areas for people and areas for monsters. What a shock it is to discover the world is round and the areas merge and nothing separates the monsters and ourselves; that we are all whirling around in space together and there isn't even a graceful way of falling off.
Take this hint, and be prepared for the unexpected. People are stranger than you think, and truth is sometimes not stranger than fiction...


9 comments:

  1. I found your aside interesting. This happens to me all the time and I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one, or the only one noticing this happening.

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    1. It's odd -- and it happens frequently. I recall when I was reading a lot of books all at once for a readathon, it was uncanny how Tim Horton's was mentioned in every single one! ;)

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  2. I've still not read any Millar - is there one that's particularly good to begin with, do you think?

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    1. I think starting with The Beast in View would be a good choice -- it's brief and it reveals a lot of Millar's style that you'll encounter in her other books. Plus it is usually thought of as one of her best.

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  3. What a great title...and terrible cover! :) I'll have to look for some of Millar's books; I've never read her before. What do you want to bet that my library doesn't carry any of her books! Great post.

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    1. Isn't it awful?! Good luck with finding some; my own library system only has one...and she was from around here...

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  4. Margaret Millar is a national treasure. Statues of her and her husband should stand on the grounds of Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate (looking over that of a reclining Mackenzie King).

    You're right that The Beast in View is a great place to start. This being summer, I recommend An Air that Kills (UK title: The Soft Talkers), set in Toronto and cottage country.

    Your observation about the value in reading books written in their contemporary setting articulates something I've never quite been able to, um, articulate.

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    1. Yes, statues of them both are needed!

      I haven't yet read An Air That Kills...I don't own it so I foresee an interlibrary loan search...thanks for the tip.

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    2. I have a very nice first edition you're always welcome to borrow. Just say the word.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!