Laura Lippman on Margaret Millar’s Beast In View
Page one, line one: a telephone rings. It is a stout, old-fashioned rotary phone. It has no Caller ID, no smartphone functions. You couldn’t use it as a GPS or even to Google “Margaret Millar Beast In View.” Helen Clarvoe, alone in her hotel residence, wouldn’t be able to carry it across the room. She has to stand where she is, staring into a mirror. The person on the other end claims to be a friend, but Helen has no friends and she doesn’t recognize this woman’s voice.
“You’ve always been such a coward, my crystal ball might scare you out of your poor little wits,” the woman taunts her. “I have it right here with me. Shall I tell you what I see?”
And from there unspools one of the most terrifying stories you will ever read. The “beast” in Beast in View is a woman with an uncanny knowledge of others’ weaknesses, preying on their fears and anxieties to invade their lives. It is a timeless story, one that reminds the twenty-first-century reader that we may have new technological tools with which to taunt and stalk our enemies. But the best crime novels care as much about character as plot and human nature doesn’t really change.
Here is our mystery caller, after an evening in the public phone booth at a bar. “Everyone was deserting her. People did not answer their phones, people walked away from her. Everyone walked away. She hated them all . . . Helen in particular. Helen had turned her back on an old friend, she had walked away, first and farthest, and for this she must suffer. She couldn’t hide forever behind an unlisted telephone number. There were other ways and means . . . The fur in her mouth grew long and thick with hate.”
Beast in View’s final revelation was a shocking twist in its day and remains a testament to the novel’s overall power and the constant pleasures of Millar’s singular style. If the ending’s effect is more muted now, it’s only because so many other writers have followed Millar’s lead with this kind of device. But few have pulled off the kind of story she tells here so expertly.
On a recent book tour, speaking to audiences who were self-selected as mystery fans, I asked room after room: Who here has heard of Margaret Millar? Almost no one had. What about Kenneth Millar, I asked. There was zero recognition. But almost everyone recognized her husband’s pseudonym, Ross Macdonald. He is now generally recognized as part of the detective fiction holy trinity that also includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The temptation, of course, is to say she was overshadowed by her husband. But trying to force the Millars into A Star is Born template—if one spouse is rising, the other must be falling—is crude and unhelpful. It also ignores the singular tragedy they shared as parents to a very troubled child.
Beast in View was published shortly before the problems of the Millars’ teenage daughter, Linda, burst into public view. In February 1956, she downed a large quantity of alcohol and then, driving recklessly, killed a 13-year-old boy and injured two others. Reports filed in the case suggested that Linda had suffered from being used as “material” in her parents’ work. Found guilty as a juvenile and put on probation, Linda Millar had more troubles ahead. Eventually she married, had a child, and even worked for a time, until her fragile health made that impossible. Four days after a pleasant visit with her parents, she died in her sleep in 1970. She was 31.
For a couple as psychologically astute as the Millars, their only child’s short, difficult life would have been a pain far more profound than any professional rivalry. After Linda’s death, Margaret Millar did not think she would write again. Yet somehow she did, returning to fiction in 1975. Throughout her career she kept overcoming odds and circumstances in order to write.
Shadows are created when we put an object between a light source and a subject. If we refrain from inserting anything between the light and Millar, then she cannot be overshadowed. We can see her as she is, one of the most original and vital voices in all of American crime fiction.