Grand dames of crime: Margaret Millar

I’m delving into the history of women crime writers again this week and celebrating Canadian born literary suspense author Margaret ‘Maggie’ Millar (1915-94). Millar explored complex inner lives, female characters battling frustrated ambition, existential isolation, class issues and changing cultural values. She was known for the depth of characterisation and surprise endings to her novels.

Millar’s writing career began writing in 1941 with The Invisible Worm featuring Paul Prye a cynical psychiatrist detective fond of quoting William Blake. She then turned to writing more conventional mystery novels, though a psychiatric bent remained. Millar’s sixth novel, psychological suspense The Iron Gates featuring Inspector Sands, was bought by Warner Bros for film. Millar worked as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in Hollywood in the mid-’40s.

Margaret Millar

Millar wrote four non-mystery novels beginning with Experiment in Springtime (1947), a critique of a post-war family. The story features a wife who is miserably married to a man who is psychotically paranoid about her fidelity.

Millar returned to crime fiction with Beast in View, a psychological thriller about spinster Miss Clarvee later adapted for a television episode for Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The novel also won the Edgar Award in 1956. Following the Edgar win, Millar served as president of the Mystery Writers of America 1957-58. In 1982 she was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and also received a Derrick Murdoch Award in 1986, a special achievement award for contributions to the crime genre.

Millar, a passionate bird watcher, was active in the Californian conservation movement in the 1960s. Her observations on wildlife near her home were collected in The Birds and the Beasts Were There (1968). She was named a Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 1965 for her service in organisations like the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. The same year The Fiend was nominated for but did not win a second Edgar. In this creepy, dark novel, a nine year old hungers for affection from her divorced, man-hating, self-pitying mother.

Margaret Millar with daughter Linda and Husband Ken

Millar’s personal life included a tumultuous marriage to fellow mystery author Ken Millar who went by the pen name Ross Macdonald. They had a daughter Linda whose life was tragically short. Linda killed a pedestrian in a drink driving hit and run incident when she was sixteen and was plagued by mental health issues before dying in her sleep of an embolism at age thirty-one.

Margaret Millar did not publish any work for six years following her daughters death in 1970. Her next novel Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976) was about a Hispanic lawyer called Tom Aragon on the trial of a wealthy women’s missing first husband, who disappeared with a Mexican girl.

Over her lifetime the prolific author produced more than 25 psychological mystery novels. She died at her home in Santa Barbara aged 79.


Bibliography:

The Invisible Worm, 1941
The Devils Loves Me, 1942
The Weak-Eyed Bat, 1942
Wall of Eyes, 1943
Fire Will Freeze, 1944
The Iron Gates, 1945
Experiment in Springtime, 1947
It’s All in the Family, 1948
The Cannibal Heart, 1949
Do Evil in Return, 1950
Rose’s Last Summer, 1952
Vanish in an Instant, 1952
Wives and Lovers, 1954
Beast in View, 1955
An Air That Kills, 1957
The Listening Walls, 1959
A Stranger in My Grave, 1960
How Like an Angel, 1962
The Fiend, 1964,
Los Angeles Times, 1965
The Birds and the Beasts Were There, 1967
Beyond This Point Are Monsters, 1970
Ask For Me Tomorrow, 1976
The Murder of Miranda, 1979
Mermaid, 1982
Banshee, 1983
Spider Webs, 1986

Photos from the web

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