New York: Random House, 1970.
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...