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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Margaret Ellis Millar (1915-1994) - née Sturm


Overshadowed by her husband Kenneth Millar, who gained fame as Ross Macdonald, the Canadian-American Margaret Millar published several noteworthy mysteries, often puzzling until the last page, and the very last words. The critic and novelist H.R.F. Keating included Millar's Beast in View (1955) among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. Millar outlived her husband. Their daughter Linda died in 1970.

"Margaret Millar is surely one of late twentieth-century crime fiction's best writers, in the sense that the actual writing is her books, the prose, is of superb quality. On almost every page of this one there is some description, whether of a physical thing or a mental state, that sends a sharp ray of extra meaning into the readers mind." (H.R.F. Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987)

Margaret Millar was born Margaret Ellis Sturm, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Her father, Henry William Sturm, was a businessman, who served as mayor of Kitchener. Her mother, Lavinia Ferrier, was the daughter of a high school principal. At the age of nine, she won a prize for a poem, but her first passion was music: she began to play piano at the age of four. Millar's childhood heroes included Houdini.

Her first stories Millar published in the Kitchener literary annual; one of its editors was her future husband. Later she developed an interest in archaeology. Millar attended the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute, where she was top of her class, and the University of Toronto (1933-1936), majoring in classics. Before completing her degree, she married Kenneth Millar, i.e. Ross Macdonald, in 1938. Between the years 1942 and 1944 they lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Linda Millar, their daughter, was born in 1939. Her godfather was R.A.D. Ford, the Canadian diplomat, poet, and editor. When Ford was assigned to Colombia in the late 1950s, the Millars played with the idea of moving to Bogotá, when Linda would attend a university, but the plan never realized.

Millar's first novel The Invisible Worm (1941) introduced the psychiatrists detective Dr Paul Prye. "I began writing when to put bed in September 1941, for an imaginary heart ailment," she recalled. "After two weeks reading three or four mysteries a day, I decided to write one and I spent the next two weeks doing just that. I rewrote it twice and sold it to Doubleday." ('Millar, Margaret (Sturm)),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 994)

This novel, published by Doubleday, was followed by The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942), one of Millar's most traditional novels, and The Devil Loves Me (1942). All of them had Paul Prye as the central character. Millar's first six books were set in Ontario.

After the publication of The Weak-Eyed Bat, Will Cuppy said in the New York Herald-Tribune, that Millar was a "right up in the top rank bafflers, including the British." ('Margaret Millar' by John M. Reilly, in Ten Women of Mystery, ed. by Earl F. Bargainnier, p. 224) Kenneth Millar's first novel, The Dark Tunnel (1944), which had been rejected by Random House, was accepted by Dodd, Mead & Company, because she was already publishing there. 

Prye is described as a man "dressed in immaculate white flannels topped with a navy-blue blazer, [who] looked like a man of the world, and the rather quizzical smile in his blue eyes suggested that he was also a man amused at the world." Prye's police contact, Inspector Sands of the Toronto Police Department, is a lonely, compassionate man of drab appearance. He is in the forefront in Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945), a psychological puzzle about a severed finger, horrifying dream of death, and an escape from a mental hospital. The plot to destroy the second wife of a succesful Toronto doctor succeeds. Its surprise ending pointed gave a hint of the way Millar would develop her subsequent books. Millar is noted for the quotation: "Life is something that happens to you while you're making other plans." (Beyond This Point Are Monsters, 1970, Chapter twelve) 

When Millar's husband accepted an academic fellowship from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour, the family moved to the United States. In Ann Arbour  they befriended the noted British poet W. H. Auden. He was a great mystery fan, who had read Millar's novels. Kenneth Millar studied modern European literature under Auden. In turn, he encouraged the couple in their writing.

Since the end of the World War II, the Millar family lived in Santa Barbara. There she enjoyed swimming and sailing. Their house, situated in a wooded canyon, was not always a place of peaceful literary life. Both writers had a temper. To be able to concentrate on their work, they wrote in different parts of the house, Margaret in the morning, Kenneth in the afternoon. Once Millar threw an egg at her husband, it splattered on the wall where she left it to dry. Moreover, she was always afraid that some other woman would steal her husband from her.

From 1950, most of the Millar mysteries were set in California, Vanish in an Instant (1952) was laid to Ann Arbor. Her home town, Santa Barbara, was variously named Santa Felicia and San Felice. Their house survived the Coyote Fire of 1964, but was complete destroyed in 1977 in the Sycamore Fire.

Upon abandoning the amateur detective Prye, Millar created such detectives as Eric Meecham, an attorney, Paul Blackshear, a semi-retired stockbroker, and Tom Aragon, a young Hispanic lawyer, and such PI's as Joe Quinn and Steve Pinata, an orphan of Mexican parentage. Unlike her husband with Lew Archer, Millar did not have interest in develping a long series around one character.

Between 1945 and 1946, Millar worked as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, Hollywood, California. She wrote the screenplay for The Iron Gates, which had bought its movie rights for fifteen thousand dollars. In 1955, she won the best novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for A Beast in View. Anthony Boucher wrote, that it is "a pure terror-suspense-mystery story, complete with murder, detective and surprise twist. But it is also so detailedly convincing a study in abnormal psychology, so admirably written with such complete realization of every character, that the most bitter antagonist of mystery fiction may be forced to acknowledge it as a work of art." ('Margaret Millar' by John M. Reilly, in Ten Women of Mystery, ed. by Earl F. Bargainnier, p. 224) The story starts with a disturbing telephone call. Helen Clarvoe, a thirty-year-old spinster thinks it came from a mad woman. Paul Blackshear, semi-retired stockbroker, sets out to track down the caller. Evelyn Merrick is the elusive telephone stalker, who is hounding Helen and who has been briefly married to Helen's homosexual brother.

Following Millar's Edgar win, she served as president of the Mystery Writers of America. In 1982, Millar was named a Grand Master by that organization and in 1986 she received Derrick Murdoch Award. Millar also wrote non-mystery novels. The first was Experiment in Springtime (1947). In the 1960s, she was very active with her husband in the conservation movement in California. They helped found a chapter of the National Audubon Society. In 1965, she was named a Woman of the Year by Los Angeles Times. Her observations on the wildlife in the canyons near her home were collected in The Birds and the Beasts Were There (1968). "Some kinds of addiction are considered incurable," Millar wrote in the book. "A bird watcher can be confined to a room with the blinds drawn and the windows closed tight. But when one of the windows is opened and a snatch of bird song drifs in, when a blind is raised and a small creature wings by, or certain leaves in a tree stir without wind, the addiction is more powerful than ever." Millar died in Santa Barbara of a heart attack on 26 March 1994. She admired the writing of Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Mansfied, and Rosamond Lehmann, among others.

Millar's interest in psychology has helped her to create interesting caracters, especially women, whose instability lead to dramatic events. As in the gothic romances, women are nearly always at the center of the plot, usually cast as victims, with some notable exceptions, such as Miss Helen Clarvoe in A Beast in View. But this character also had a profound effect on Millar. As she recalled: "Reader's letters indicated it had same effect on them. I was threatened with a libel suit, informed by a patient in a mental institution that at last she had found someone who really understood her, invited to join a coven of witches.... Helen Clarvoe and I made a good team. I hope we never meet." (Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction by Michael Cohen, 2000, pp. 76-77)

A Stranger in My Grave (1960) is among Millar's best works. It depicts a young woman who has a recurrent nightmare in which she sees her own grave. And one day she actually does see the grave she has deamed about. The Fiend (1964) created an atmosphere of suspense and suspicion. In the story a man who is friendly with children. "The conditions were impossible, of course. He couldn't turn and run in the opposite direction every time he saw a child. They were all over, everywhere, at any hour." He becomes the prime suspect when a little girl disappears. In Banshee (1983) Millar dealt with the theme of loss. A young girl, who is called Princess, disappears and is later found dead. The story is perhaps Millar's most emotional.

How Like an Angel (1962) examined changing cultural values. The protagonist is Joe Quinn, a gambler and former private detective. He drifts to a remote religious community, a cult called the True Believers. Sister Blessing persuades him to search a supposedly dead man, Patrick O'Gorman. Quinn is an outsider, who has no plans for the future. During his casual investigation, Quinn becomes involved with O'Gorman's widow Martha. As if foretelling the emergence of hippie communities, Millar depicts partly realistically, partly understanding the alternate lifestyle of the people, who have withdrawn from the society, and try to manage without modern conveniences.

Most of Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970) consists of a court hearing, which gradually reveals truth under deception. "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." (from Beyond This Point Are Monsters) The title is taken from a warning at the edge of a reproduced medieval map once owned by Robert Osborne. He has disappeared, but his body has not been found. The book also deals with problems of Hispanic migrant workers in southern California. "No wonder, reading the book before writing this, I twice laid it down and murmured aloud 'Jesus, how well she writes.'" (Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating, 1987, p. 72)

After her daughter's death in 1970, at the age of thirty-one, Millar published no fiction for six years. Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976) was about a young Hispanic lawyer Tom Aragon on the trail of a wealthy woman's missing first husband, who disappeared years ago with a Mexican girl. According to rumors he is alive and has made a fortune. Aragon also featured in humorous The Murder of Miranda (1979), which centered around the rich widow of the title and the head lifeguard at a Californian beach club. In Mermaid (1982) Aragon was hired to to find a mentally retarded young woman. Spider Webs (1982) was a courtroom thriller with a racial theme. In the story Cully Paul King, a black captain of a private yacht and a well-know womanizer, is accused of murder.

For further reading: Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s by Jeffrey Marks (2003); 'Margaret Millar,' in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002); 'Margaret Millar' by Virginia S. Hale, in Great Women Mystery Writers, ed. by Kathleen Gregory Klein (1994); 'Millar, Margaret (Ellis, née Sturm)' by Edward D. Hoch, in Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); 'Margaret Millar' by John M. Reilly, in Ten Women of Mystery, ed. by Earl F. Bargainnier (1981); 'Millar, Margaret (Sturm)),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975)

Selected bibliography:

  • The Invisible Worm, 1941
  • The Weak-Eyed Bat, 1942
  • The Devil Loves Me, 1942
  • Wall of Eyes, 1943
  • Fire Will Freeze, 1944
  • The Iron Gates, 1945 (GB title: Taste of Fears, 1950)
    - Rautaportti (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1995)
  • Experiment in Springtime, 1947
  • It’s All in the Family, 1948
  • The Cannibal Heart, 1949
  • Do Evil in Return, 1950
    - Pahan valta (suom. Reijo Kawas, 1997)
  • Rose's Last Summer, 1952 (US title: The Lively Corpse, 1956)
    - Film 1960, in Thriller TV series, prod. Hubbell Robinson Productions, dir. by Arthur Hiller, adaptation by Marie Baumer, starring Boris Karloff, Mary Astor, Lin McCarthy, Jack Livesey.
  • Vanish in an Instant, 1952
  • Wives and Lovers, 1954
  • 'The Couple Next Door,' 1956 (in Ellery Queen's Awards: Ninth Series)
  • Beast in View, 1955
    - Saalis näkyvissä (suom. Leena Sopenlehto, 1964)
    - TV film 1964, in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, prod. Shamley Productions, dir. by Joseph M. Newman, adaptation by James Bridges, starring Joan Hackett, Kevin McCarthy, Kathleen Nolan, Brenda Forbes; TV film 1986, in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. by Michael Toshiyuki Uno, adaptation by Robert Glass, starring Janet Eilber, Cliff Potts, Tom Atkins, Joseph Ruskin.
  • An Air That Kills, 1957 (GB title: The Soft Talkers, 1957)
    - Tappava ilma (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1961)
  • The Listening Walls, 1959
    - Seinillä on korvat (suom. Heidi Järvenpää, 1965)
  • A Stranger in My Grave, 1960
    - Muukalainen haudassani (suom. Mikko Haljoki, 1962)
  • How Like an Angel, 1962
    - Kuin enkeli (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1996)
  • 'The People Across the Canyon,' 1962 (in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine)
  • The Fiend, 1964
  • The Birds and the Beasts Were There, 1968
  • Beyond This Point Are Monsters, 1970
  • 'McGowney's Miracle,' 1975 (in Every Crime in the Book)
  • Ask for Me Tomorrow, 1976
    - Kysykää minua huomenna (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Hanno Vammelvuo, 1980)
  • The Murder of Miranda, 1979
    - Mirandan murha (suom. Tiina Ohinmaa, 1990)
  • Mermaid, 1982
  • Banshee, 1983
  • Spider Webs, 1986
    - Lain seitit (suom. Tiina Ohinmaa, 1995)
  • The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries, 2004 (edited by Tom Nolan)
  • Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense, 2017
  • Collected Millar: The First Detectives, 2017
  • Collected Millar: First Things, Last Things, 2017

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