I discovered Margaret Millar first, with one of her masterpieces, How Like an Angel. Julian Symons bears some responsability for it as his rhapsodising about her and this book in particular in Bloody Murder had made me curious and led to buy the book when I found it in a Montpellier bookstore. I didn’t and still don’t regret it and it is one of the reasons I have to be grateful to JS despite our many disagreements. Upon closing the book I knew I had to read everything Millar had written and our following encounters only streghtened my conviction. Vanish in an Instant, A Stranger in my Grave, Rose’s Last Summer, The Fiend, Beyond This Point Are Monsters… I loved them all, though not always for the same reasons. What I loved most about them was the way they demonstrated you could have the best of both worlds, plot and character. Sure it took lots of work and above all a lot of talent (genius?) but it was possible.
I tried Kenneth Millar a little later. I had heard about him of course and often in glowing terms, except from French critics who hated him for some reason (they have relented since) but I was not attracted to the kind of stories he wrote or more accurately the stories I thought he wrote. For Kenneth Millar was most famous as Ross MacDonald, one of the « Big Three » of hardboiled fiction along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and I was very much against that genre at the time. Still, I finally gave him a try: I read The Instant Enemy, admittedly neither his most famous work or one of his towering achievements, but I liked it. I didn’t love it but I liked it. The same can be said of the other Ross MacDonald books I’ve read since. None was a bad read, they had lots of going for it – but RMcD still has to blew me away the way his wife did and does.
Married couples writing mysteries is not something the Millars invented, but their brand is unique. Kenneth and Margaret Millar never wrote together and yet they are probably the most fusional writing couple in the history of the genre, influencing each other so much that they can be described as one person in two writers in the same way that Ellery Queen was one writer in two persons. Book after book the Millars explored the same themes, painted the same kind of characters, devised the same kind of plots – and yet they didn’t write the same books because for all their similarities their approaches to mystery writing, and writing overall, were very different.
Let’s begin with the similarities however. The most obvious is a thematical one. Reading a Millar or MacDonald book comes with expectations and one of them is that the story will deal in some way with toxic families (abusive mothers in particular) and the events be rooted in a past that, as Faulkner put it, is not past. It can be argued that the Millars never really wrote about anything else, mostly out of autobiographical reasons. Millar did so in a seemingly detached, quietly ironic way – Ruth Rendell probably learned a lot from her even though she never discussed it – whereas MacDonald took it more on a personal level but the material is the same.
Another important similarity and perhaps the most crucial to the lay reader pertains to plotting. Neither Millar or MacDonald wrote « plain whodunits » – Millar’s early attempts were not very convincing from this point of view – but a very peculiar kind of mystery that Jon L. Breen once called « dazzler ». A dazzler is the novel-length equivalent of the twist ending story, being a seemingly straightforward narrative up to the end when a massive and shocking surprise changes the whole meaning of what preceded. The mere presence of a twist doesn’t make the dazzler; the twist has to be meaningful and final – by which I mean devastating for both the characters and the reader and leaving them in a state of horrified dismay.
It will come to no one’s surprise that such mysteries are extremely hard to write and thus extremely rare. The only modern writer I can think of making a specialty of it is Thomas H. Cook which in many respects is a modern-day male version of Margaret Millar – but I’ll discuss him in fuller detail in another post. Let’s go back to the Millars. Both set out to unbalance, rather than only deceive, the reader and at their best they do it beautifully. It can be argued that MacDonald initiated this approach first as his very first novel, The Dark Tunnel, is built around the kind of shocking deception his wife would later be famous for – but Millar soon caught up and the pupil became the master. MacDonald’s work is rich in juggernaut final revelations but very few are as impressive as what Millar achieves in, say, Vanish in an Instant.
That’s because while their aims are the same, their tactics are completely different. MacDonald received from his hardboiled elders then perfected the technique known as « pinball plotting ». His narratives are bumpy, eventful and somewhat convoluted and confusing. This is what in my view lessens some of his plots as how can a shocking twist be shocking when you’re barely able to make out what’s going on? Another problem is the presence of a series character. Now I won’t tell you again about my feelings about the whole concept, they are well-known and need no repeating. The problem here is that Archer’s presence lessens the impact of MacDonald’s stories and overall literary project. As I said earlier, the final twist around which the dazzler is built has to literally be that – final in its implications and consequences. The dazzler unlike more traditional forms of crime fiction brings no closure, it ends opening another can of worms that we’re left wondering how the characters will deal with – but MacDonald’s stories are ultimately about Lew Archer and we know nothing serious will ever happen to him or affect him longer than the last page of the book. Also Archer is not quite the observer, the eye, that MacDonald wants him to be but rather a filter – we never really get to know the supporting characters, just what he thinks of them. It thus deprives the stories of the psychological and symbolical dimension he strove to gave them.
Millar in her « Golden Years » solved that problem by doing away with series character entirely and adopting an omniscient narrator viewpoint that allowed them to explore her characters’ inner lives at will and at leisure. She also chose a more traditional approach to storytelling, more straightforward, more streamlined and thus more efficient. We readers know that she has something in store but not only do we not know what but we don’t know how she’ll pull it off as she doesn’t seem to hide anything. We know after all more about what’s going on than the characters themselves, having access to their thoughts, and yet it turns out in the end we didn’t know jack. Millar is basically using the same tools as Agatha and with the same brilliance; she just uses them to different ends. She is doing for the « traditional » mystery what her husband did for the « hardboiled » one.
There is much more to write about the Millars and I will probably do someday. Their influences in their respective genres were seminal, decisive and above all lasting even though in Millar’s case her popularity has faded over the years. They were among the most important writers in the history of our genre, though it remains unclear to this day whether we should talk about them in the singular or the plural – this is up to readers to say.