review · U.S.

The Fiend by Margaret Millar

fiendThe Fiend by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1964

This edition: International Polygonics Library of Crime Classics, 1984

Source: I borrowed this from the library.

I’m continuing my haphazard tour through Margaret Millar, and this is a really good one though not my favorite. It’s a haphazard tour because most of her books are out-of-print so I’m reading what I can find for now.

Margaret Millar is getting lots of press lately because of her inclusion in Women Crime Writers of the 1940’s and 1950’s from the Library of America, and I’ll admit it’s one of the reasons I decided to try her in the first place.  I’m approaching her stuff as a crime fiction fan who’s not an expert in the history of the genre, but I will say that it’s obvious that her focus on psychology and suspense has influenced lots of the contemporary writers I read. Millar gets into the minds of her characters without writing chapters in alternating first-person narration, and it makes me like her books more. I tend to be very picky about first-person narrators. All of her characters are given depth, which is quite a feat. And she is pretty damn good at plotting, though that’s not the focus of this particular story.

If you can’t already tell from the on-the-nose-cover of this particular edition, The Fiend spends a lot of time with a character, Charlie Gowen, who is a convicted sex offender who is released from a psychiatric facility and appears to be close to re-offending. There are quite a few other fiendish or at least extremely unhappy characters in this novel, which happens to take place in the same San Felice (a stand-in for Santa Barbara) as part of the last Millar I read, How Like an Angel. Millar has a great deal of sympathy for Charlie, and she doesn’t sensationalize him or his brain’s workings, which is quite impressive. There are so many distressing things happening in the lives of these characters that it’s just one sad part of the story. Charlie discovers Jessie Brant, a nine-year-old girl, and her best friend Mary Martha Oakley on a school playground during his lunch hour. Mary Martha’s parents’ protracted custody battle, the Jessie’s parents’ marital troubles as well as the troubles of their next-door-neighbors frame this story. Millar obviously had marital discord and how young children interpret such discord among grown-ups on her mind, and it provides a fertile background to the story.

This book reminded me a great deal of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children in its focus on unhappy couples and a sex offender living in the neighborhood: the same sort of disappointment and paranoia suffuse this story. I think it’s probably uncommmon to write a book about sex offenders in the first half of the 1960’s. Because both Beast in View and How Like an Angel were so ingenious in their plotting, this book paled in comparison plot-wise. I didn’t mind though because the characters and their paranoia were so vivid.

I heartily recommend this book. Three Millars down, 24 more to go!

Other reviews appear in Tipping My Fedora and Ohlman’s Fifty.

 

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14 thoughts on “The Fiend by Margaret Millar

  1. I agree that the plot is perhaps less surprising than the likes of HOW LIKE AN ANGEL (possibly my favourite Millar in fact) but it’s a brave and sensitive book and certainly very strong on character with a nice sense of irony.

      1. Me too. I know I’ve been checking almost weekly but outside of Sarah Weinman’s anthology, I’m not finding any of her new work available…speaking of which, all the stories Weinman has in vol. 1 and vol.2 are books I’ve read or own already. I was looking forward to reading them. Oh, well.

      2. I keep looking to blogs for other female crime novelist recommendations (Passing Tramp, Tipping My Fedora, some of the Forgotten Fridays round-ups)- there are lots of cool-sounding books to track down. BTW, did you like MISCHIEF?

  2. By Charlotte Armstrong? I haven’t read that one. In fact, that’s the only one I don’t have and don’t want to read. I have other Armstrong titles I want to read that I already own. Speaking of women crime fiction novelists, here’s one I learned about but haven’t read yet: The Lucky Stiff by Craig Rice (pen name for Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig). I plan to read it soon.

    1. I haven’t heard of her/him. In the meantime, I picked up two more Millars, Banshee (one of her last ones) and Vanish in an Instant (from the early 1950s). If the reissues don’t start soon, I may collect them all beforehand!

      1. I counted three on my shelf since we last chatted. I have The Murder of Miranda, A Stranger in My Grave and thanks to you, How Like An Angel.

  3. Well now I know that this one and How Like an Angel are ones I will look for. I read Ask for me Tomorrow recently and am having difficulty reviewing it. Although I did like it.

    1. I look forward to your thoughts, Tracy. The three I’ve read so far (Beast in View, Fiend, and How Like an Angel) won awards or were finalists, so I guess I read some of the best first.

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