Showing posts with label Margaret Millar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Margaret Millar. Show all posts

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Inspector Sands #02 - The Iron Gates

Along with her contemporaries like Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong, Dolores Hitchens and Helen Nielsen, California native Margaret Millar helped solidify the presence of talented female mystery authors in the 1940s and 1950s. She wrote over 25 original novels, mostly as stand-alone works. However, her first three novels starred a Canadian sleuth named Dr. Paul Prye and she repeated that creation with another Canadian detective, Inspector Sands. 

The Toronto homicide detective starred in Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945), as well as a short story called "The Neighbors Next Door" in a 1954 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I chose to read the latter novel based on an article by Curtis Evans (via Stark House Press) praising the book. It has been reprinted multiple times in hardcover, paperback, and most recently as an audio book. It was also printed in the U.K. as Taste of Fears.

In The Iron Gates, Millar's prose is pure psychological suspense. In the book's opening chapters, Lucille Morrow is mourning the unusual death of her friend Mildred. These scenes are beautifully written and drape the imagery in a white pane of frosted glass reflecting Lucille's loss and mental anguish. It's a hazy precursor to what eventually occurs later in the book as a historical flashback or retelling. 

Later, readers learn that Lucille is now married to a retired physician named Andrew, Mildred's previous husband. She is the stepmother of his two adult, but childish, kids and the in-law to his worrisome sister, all of which reside in the same house. Due to the death of Mildred, and Andrew's replacement of her with Lucille, there are strict dividing lines in the household based on suspicions and shifting judgments. These alliances and strategic family placements play into the novel's central themes of jealousy and lust.

Inspector Sands becomes involved in the narrative when Lucille goes missing. There's early discussion between characters about a nearby park where a grisly murder took place. There's a cautionary tale told about a wandering ax-man preying on park guests. The idea that Lucille is missing, the nearby murder, Mildred's prior death and this strange ax-man all play into the mystery. Sands doesn't know what to believe and finds the family obtuse about Lucille's whereabouts. Only Andrew seems genuinely concerned about her well-being, opening up a string of guesses on which family member committed murder.

The book takes an interesting twist for the second half. Without spoiling the plot development, a major character ends up in a mental asylum behind “iron gates”. Her reason for being there is cloudy, leaving Sands and a detective to investigate the events surrounding her confinement in the asylum. Most of the book's second half does take place in the asylum as the character interacts with other mental patients and the hospital's staff. I enjoyed these parts of the story, but felt it was a little distracting at times. The behavior of the patients and their involvement in the main character's psyche definitely contributes to the story's development, but it's a marathon. 

As a psychological suspense novel, Millar conveys a lot of emotion in her writing. I enjoy the shading she provides as she draws out each character for the reader to suspect. As I learn more and more about female mystery authors of the 20th century, my research always leads to Millar. She was a a real talent and sadly isn't as relevant now. Her work is mostly forgotten aside from a few reprint houses still preserving her novels. Her spouse, Ross MacDonald, the creator of the California detective Archer, is in more abundance, but honestly Millar may have been the one to read all along. 

The Iron Gates was optioned for film to Warner Brothers and allegedly Millar wrote the screenplay. It was to star either Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, but the film never came to fruition. This novel remains rather timeless and would make for a great modern film with it's real world complexity. My vote is for director David Bruckner (The Night House, The Ritual). Anyone have his number? 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 26, 2021

Do Evil in Return

Margaret Ellis Millar (born Margaret Ellis Sturm, 1915-1994) was a mystery writer originally from Ontario, Canada. In 1938, Margaret married Kenneth Millar, the author who used the pseudonym Ross Macdonald to create and write the bestselling Lew Archer character. Margaret Millar authored over 25 novels, including series titles like Paul Pry, Inspector Sands and Tom Aragon. My first experience with Millar is her 1950 Dell paperback Do Evil in Return. In 2006, Stark House Press reprinted the book as a double along with the author's 1957 novel An Air That Kills.

Charlotte Keating is a private-practicing physician who lives and works in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. One evening before close she receives a young woman named Violet. Desperate for help, Violet tells Charlotte that she is a married woman from Oregon who had an affair with a married man and is now four months pregnant. The purpose of her visit is to request Charlotte to perform an abortion. Charlotte rejects and explains that the term of pregnancy is too advanced while reminding Violet that abortions are illegal. Charlotte learns that Violet rents a one-bedroom apartment in town. While offering to bring her there, Violet runs away. 

Afterwards, readers learn about Charlotte's emotional problems. She has an extended relationship with a married man named Lewis. Her mental barriers are thick with a sense of insecurity, self-doubt and vulnerability. She wants Lewis to divorce his spouse or just have the internal fortitude to end their own long affair. With all of these underlining conditions, Charlotte somehow feels as if she has failed Violet.

On the other side of the city, Charlotte speaks with one of Violet's neighbors and has the impression that they are not pleasant people. After her visit, Charlotte shockingly learns that Violet’s body has washed ashore and all signs point to a suicidal drowning as the cause of death. 

Charlotte's brief participation in the young lady's life has now become rather dangerous and complex. Violet’s violent uncle and conniving husband break into Charlotte’s house and attempt to extort her for money. She refuses and things quickly become grim when a skeptical police detective starts asking questions about Charlotte's role in Violet's suicide. When Violet's husband and uncle are discovered with bullet holes in the head, Charlotte finds herself in a whirling nightmare.

Millar's plot was structured as a suspenseful mystery with a handful of characters who might have turned out to be a killer. I liked the author's inclusion of extramarital affairs and the way these characters viewed themselves and their marriages. Except for Charlotte, nearly all the characters were married and had difficult relationships. Millar’s unmarried characters "survive" the ordeal. It seems to me that Millar's suggestion is that two people can find independent happiness. 

While Millar is considered a mystery writer, I also like to think of Do Evil in Return as a stylish crime-noir. It has some detective procedural elements, the concept of an average citizen thrust into extreme circumstances and the alarming idea that an innocent person could find themselves guilty of a crime they didn't commit. These are all genre tropes that adapt uniformly to most of these crime novels of the mid-20th century. As a short read, I found it to be an entertaining experience. 

Note: There is an informative biography HERE that discusses Millar’s fascinating life, influences and her superb writing style. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE