Saturday, October 01, 2016

Complete Collected Mysteries of Grand Master Margaret Millar

About two weeks ago, Syndicate Books -- distributed by crime fiction marvel Soho Press -- released the first of a massive seven-volume set that will offer the complete works of Margaret Millar.

And for many a mystery fan, the most pressing mystery is: Who was Margaret Millar, and why don't we know her books already?

Think back to when you began reading the classic mystery authors. I know who I read: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, and my mother's copies of Earle Stanley Gardiner and John Dickson Carr. Then Mignon Eberhart, John D. MacDonald, Graham Greene, even Ngaio Marsh. These have all been named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. The award began in 1955 with Agatha Christie; many others named since then have written for so long that I think of them as my own contemporaries instead of my mother's -- John Le Carré, Tony Hillerman, Donald E. Westlake, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James.

But I missed a few, and I think it's no accident that Margaret Millar's work was among them. Deeply disturbing, psychologically intense, probing, and really truly creepy in their pace and suspense, her books -- like Vanish in an Instant and Beast in View -- are books I could not have absorbed well during the anxious and hectic college years and then childrearing. Now, however, their power and finely honed craft make an immediate impression.

It's not easy to find Millar's books in bookstores; even in the online sources of used books, they're not plentiful. So it's a huge gift to find the first collected volume of COLLECTED MILLAR, subtitled The Master at Her Zenith, as a freshly issued oversized paperback (9 by 6 inches, and 1.5 inches thick, 533 pages). Unlike the "old" softcovers familiar to collectors, this one is sturdy and well bound, to rest comfortably (if heavily) in the hands. And what a source!

Not only has this central volume of five of Millar's novels been released -- the remaining six are scheduled to follow briskly, this month for Legendary Novels of Suspense and the others in 2017: in January, March, May, June, and July (the last volume is her memoir and nature writing).

I found the insistent tightening of suspense in Vanish in an Instant reminiscent of watching a Hitchcock film playing out -- here's a sample of the writing:
Cordwick picked up the wrinkled bloodstained trench coat, quite naturally and casually, as if it was an ordinary piece of clothing. There was no indication, in his movements or expression, of his extreme distaste for the sight of blood, the feelings it gave him, of loss, futility, vulnerability. The blood on this worn and dirty coat had been the end of a man and might be the end of another.

He said calmly, "Do you, for instance, recognize this coat, Mrs. Hearst?"

"I -- don't know.. It's so wrinkled. I can't ... what are those marks?"


She drew in her breath suddenly, gaspingly, like an exhausted swimmer.
Beyond Hitchcock, the rich literary writing also reminds me of Henning Mankell's work, and the pained examination of emotions might well be a response to those who accuse crime fiction of wanton violence. In Millar's writing, every wound, every death, is shockingly real.

Feminist, Grand Master, sustained powerful author, Millar merits more reading today. I'm glad to see this series in print, and recommend it for many a collection of strong crime fiction.

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