Millar, Margaret

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MILLAR, Margaret

Born 5 February 1915, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada; died 26 March 1994

Daughter of William and Lavinia Ferrier Sturm; married Kenneth Millar, 1938

Margaret Millar studied at the University of Toronto; her early interests were classics, archaeology, music, and psychiatry. Millar's husband wrote mysteries under the name Ross Macdonald. Millar is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America and widely known as an environmentalist. The Birds and the Beasts Were There (1967) recounts the difficulties and the pleasures of a major current interest, bird watching.

Primarily known as a mystery writer, Millar created two series detectives. Dr. Paul Prye, psychiatrist and witty amateur sleuth, appears in The Invisible Worm (1941) and The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942), which details Prye's search for a killer and his courtship of clever, brash Nora Shane. Their wedding, in The Devil Loves Me (1942), is complicated by a murder and allows for the introduction of the second continuing character, Detective-Inspector Sands.

Sands, unprepossessing but perceptive and humane, is more typical of Millar's characters and appears in two other novels. Wall of Eyes (1943) uses an important Millar device—characters who are not what or who they seem. The relationship between the Heath sisters, pliant Alice and blind, shrill Kelsey, asks who is prey and who is predator. The Iron Gates (1945) finds Sands investigating the disappearance of Lucille Morrow, one of Millar's most successfully complex characters. The novel also features another important Millar motif, dream imagery, and a key theme, the evil power of love.

Fire Will Freeze (1944) and Rose's Last Summer (1952) are comedy-mysteries. Fire provides amusing characters, a measure of terror, and a clever surprise ending. All the early novels employ the "closed circle of suspects" technique.

Psychotic personalities are the focus of The Cannibal Heart (1949) and Beast in View (1955, cited as best mystery, winning the Edgar Allen Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1956). In The Cannibal Heart, the relative innocence of young Jessie Banner and adolescent Luisa Roma contrasts with the corruption of Janet Wakefield as she attempts to compensate for disappointment in marriage and motherhood. Beast in View is the study of Helen Clarvoe, rejected and repressed as a child and dangerous as a woman. Hurtful family impact is a central theme, and the novel employs yet another pattern, the outsider drawn into a turmoil of family entanglements.

Perhaps Millar's best novels are Vanish in an Instant (1952) and The Fiend (1964). The former compares the relationship between Virginia Barkley, accused of a murder, and her overprotective mother with that between Earl Loftus, who confesses to the killing, and his alcoholic mother. The Fiend, compassionate and unsentimental, probes the interactions within and between five families as Charlie Gowen, former child molester, struggles against his interest in little Jessie Brant. The characterizations are vivid, and Millar uses a variation of the mother-child theme here, as a childless woman interferes with another's daughter.

The Listening Walls (1959) compares the self-protective instincts of a Mexican hotel maid with those of a pampered California matron. Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970) and Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976) have fine Southern California settings, and in each Millar provides sensitive examinations of the position of Mexican Americans within this culture.

How Like an Angel (1962) interweaves two plots—a disappearing husband and the fate of the True Believers, a strange religious cult. The Believers' impact on the elderly Sister Blessing and teenaged Sister Karma are of especial interest, as is the portrait of Charlotte Keating, the seemingly controlled, competent, independent physician of Do Evil in Return (1950). The detectives in these novels, Quinn and Easter, are imperfect but decent men doing their best to cope with murder and with love.

Experiment in Springtime (1947), Wives and Lovers (1954), and A Stranger in My Grave (1960) treat failed marriages. In each, recognition of failure and termination of the marriage symbolize growth toward maturity for at least one partner. Experiment in Springtime contrasts the "second youth" of Martha Pearson and Steve Ferris, reunited lovers, with the realistic adolescence of Laura Shaw, who also loves Steve. A Stranger in My Grave effectively combines gothic overtones with a search for self-definition as Stevens Pinata discovers factual reasons for Daisy Harker's nightmares.

Millar is considered a novelist of skill and power, especially noted for her effective imagery and excellent characterizations. For her lifetime achievement, she was named the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year in 1965, and given the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master award in 1982 (she also served as president of the MWA from 1957-58).

Other Works:

It's All in the Family (1948). An Air That Kills (1957). The Murder of Miranda (1979). Mermaid (1982). Banshee (1983). Spider Webs (1986).


Reference works:

CA (1975). Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996). WA.

Other references:

The Armchair Detective (Jan. 1970). NYT (13 Oct. 1976). NYTBR (30 May 1954, 21 June 1964).


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