Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Beast in View by Margaret Millar: A review

Many years ago, around the 1980s as I recall, I was a huge fan of the writing of Ross Macdonald, especially his series featuring hard-boiled detective Lew Archer. During that time, I think I must have read all or most of those books and enjoyed every one. Little did I realize at the time that Macdonald was married to an acclaimed writer of psychological thrillers named Margaret Millar. Millar's books were much-honored and her book Beast in View won the Edgar Award as the best book of the year in 1956.  There was a reference to her book in an article I read recently about classic mysteries and I was intrigued. The fact that she was married to Macdonald caught my attention, but the book sounded interesting and I decided to make Millar's acquaintance.

The book fully lives up to the article's praise of it. It is a tightly plotted, suspenseful tale with a surprising twist at the end. It evinces a feeling of the sinister throughout. Millar obviously knew what she was doing.

She gives us thirty-year-old Helen Clarvoe, living alone in a residence hotel in Los Angeles. Helen was heiress to a small fortune, which allowed her to eschew employment as a way of sustaining herself. The source of her inheritance is never really explained but is assumed to be her dead father. Her mother and younger brother Douglas are both still alive but she is estranged from them; again, we don't really know why. Even though she only lives a few miles away from the family home where both of her relatives live, Helen doesn't talk to them for months at a time.

Helen is a singularly solitary figure with no known friends and no regular human contacts other than the people who work at the hotel. And she is frightened. She has been receiving bizarre phone calls and, even though there is no overt threat, she feels threatened by them. The caller is someone who insists that Helen knows her but Helen cannot recognize the name.

She has no one she can turn to, but, eventually, she thinks of the investment counselor who advised her father and now advises her. She contacts Paul Blackshear and asks him to investigate. He is reluctant since private investigation is way beyond his skill set, but Helen seems so desperate that he finally agrees to do what he can.

As he wades into the mystery, Blackshear begins to realize that something very strange is happening here. He traces the person who is named as the caller fairly easily and he talks to Helen's mother and brother but the mystery only deepens. As he seeks an answer to the puzzle, he sees that there is a predatory and treacherous nature behind it all, but what exactly is the identity of that nature?

Millar has some truly marvelous lines scattered throughout the book. This one stands out for me, an observation by Blackshear as he meets with Helen:
Blackshear felt a great pity for her not because of her tears but because of all the struggle it had taken to produce them. 
And with that line we know that perhaps all is not quite as it seems with Helen. 

In another encounter, we get a description of the messages relayed by the mystery caller:
"She's crafty, she hasn't had to do any of the destroying herself. She just throws in the bone and lets the dogs fight each other over it. And there's usually some meat of truth on the bone."
Innuendo can be a powerful weapon indeed. 

My only real criticism of the book is that I would have liked more exposition regarding just what led Helen to be the person she is. We are left to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations and I assume that was intentional by the author, but I wish she would have fleshed out that part of the story just a bit more.

By the way, the book that Millar beat out for the Edgar Award in 1956? The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

  


4 comments:

  1. Both the plot and the title seen intriguing.

    On a side note, I remember when threatening, ominous, weird and sometimes amusing crank calls were a thing. I think that some younger folks would really not understand.

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    1. I guess you are right. Instead of prank phone calls now we have mean and threatening social media.

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  2. I have read this because I always read the Edgar winners for My Big Fat Reading Project. I liked it too. I did not know she beat our Patricia Highsmith.

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    1. That little tidbit was mentioned in the article that clued me in to the book.

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