Ask for Me Tomorrow by Margaret Millar

ask for me tomorrowI like Margaret Millar books because her characters are oddballs and because her stories are compact.

My self-imposed project to read through Margaret Millar continues, this time with the first in the Tom Aragon series, Ask for Me Tomorrow. He’s a young hispanic lawyer in Santa Felicia, Millar’s stand-in for Santa Barbara, and he’s hired by a middle-aged woman named Gilly to track down her first husband who disappeared with a young maid from their home a number of years ago.

It feels a lot like other Millars: there’s a strange-seeming religious group that Gilly’s cook belongs to, the Holy Sabbathians, very much like the the cult in How Like an Angel. There’s an outsider going into a strange world. Aragon is young, and first he’s an outsider at Gilly’s house with its array of hired help for her and her second husband, who suffered a stroke, and then in Baja, Mexico as he tracks down her first husband who spent time in the Rio Seco jail, a jail called the Quarry in a very smelly town. And finally, what makes this feel like other Millar books is her dialogue. There always seems to be something off in Aragon’s conversations: with his client Gilly, with the legal assistant in his office, with the people he meets in Rio Seco.

The characters are vivid oddballs, which makes this story stick with me. And she ends the story without a lot of telling, so pondering motives is what happened to me after I read the book.

I bought my copy of the book.

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

vanish instantVanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1952

This edition: International Polygonics Ltd, 1989

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’ve found the first Margaret Millar novel that didn’t quite work for me. I was still wrapped up in the plot and the characters and the writing, but it didn’t seem as brilliant as Beast in View, How Like an Angel, or The Fiend. I may be overly critical because the bar was so high after those three books, but I will say that this was loads better than lots of other stuff I’ve tried this year.

Vanish in an Instant begins as a story about a weird mother-daughter dynamic. Virginia is in jail for murdering her lover Claude, an older man with money, and the protagonist of the story is her defense lawyer Charles Meecham, hired by her wealthy and eccentric mother from California. The action takes place in a thinly-disguised Ann Arbor, Michigan, named here Arbana. Millar gets the wintry-ness of the setting down, and I’m assuming that’s because she grew up not far away in Kitchener, Ontario.

The story turns into a what-really-happened story when Meecham doubts the confession of a dying man, Earl Loftus, the day after he’s retained to represent Virginia. It turns into a kind of PI novel because Charles isn’t really on the case once Virginia is no longer a murder suspect. 10110Meecham is a bit of an outsider, not in the town, but outside the strange relationships in Virginia’s circle.

Millar is so good at painting desperate characters: that is what has stayed with me the most instead of the mechanics of the plot. Everyone feels a little bit off, which kept me reading. Everyone’s motive is called into question, which is suspenseful, but it got a little tiring. When everyone is lying, it feels like a bit much to me.

I have one more Millar waiting on my shelves, Banshee, but I think I’ll try some other classic crime author before I get back to her.

 

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.

 

How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

howlikeanangelHow Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1962, this edition International Polygonics, Ltd, 1982

Source: I bought my copy of the book.

How Like an Angel is a spectacular book: the plotting is great, the characters are incredibly memorable, and I was totally surprised by the resolution. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve read, and I think it’s even better than the only other Millar I’ve read, Beast in View.

The protagonist is Joe Quinn, a PI with a gambling problem who ran out of money in Reno, gets a ride to southern California, and visits a religious cult called the Tower after being dropped off in the mountains. Millar is great at capturing the desolate scenery, though I have to admit that I am not one for descriptions of local trees. Quinn spends the night at the compound, leaves for another small town after being hired by Sister Blessing, a member of the Tower, to find out the whereabouts of a Patrick O’Gorman of Chicote, a relatively nearby oil town. It’s a missing persons case that’s about five years old, and Quinn travels between Chicote and the Tower in a pretty confounding investigation.

Millar creates vivid characters, and their dialogues are witty and actually interesting. That’s quite a feat, given that I tend to lose my train of thought during some interview scenes in mysteries.  Millar doesn’t mock the members of the Tower, which was refreshing as well. The mystery stayed pretty mysterious for me, and I felt that something was off about quite a few characters without being able to come up with a theory of the case.

While in some ways the books seems like a book of its time (there’s a reference to crazy tailfins on cars, it doesn’t seem to be a world that’s seen the dawn of the women’s movement), in another way it’s contemporary in its criticisms of the prison industrial complex. Most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a contemporary book because it’s not gruesome in its depiction of crimes nor is it structured the same way. Much like when I read A Fatal Inversion earlier this summer, I finished How Like an Angel and thought to myself how incredibly structured it was. And the title is quite a bitter take on people. I’ll stop now: this is a great book, and there’s much more I could say. Just read Millar.

 

 

Beast in View by Margaret Millar

beastinviewBeast in View by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1955

This edition: Carrol & Graf, 2004

I borrowed this book from the library.

Beast in View was fantastic. It’s the first Millar I’ve read though I’ve heard of her many times. Though the psychological theories underlying some of the characters have changed in the last 60 years, the book feels fresh to me. It’s a short, thrilling read, and I was very impressed.

Beast in View takes place in a very strange section of Los Angeles, the section occupied by the agoraphobic, rich heiress Helen Clarvoe. She lives in a shabby hotel alone and avoids most human contact (I think she’s agoraphobic), and she receives a mysterious phone call from a woman named Evelyn who exploits her fears of being entirely alone forever. Helen enlists the help of her father’s former investment adviser, Mr. Sheepshear, who tries to track down the mysterious Evelyn for Helen, but the book doesn’t stay with the search exclusively. Instead Millar jumps from perspective to perspective, covering Helen’s family and her brother’s work associates.

Millar is great at dialogue: the pace is brisk. Tone-wise, I felt slightly off-kilter throughout the story. This is not a typical hardboiled detective in LA kind of story: it’s more disturbing to me, and it’s written from the perspective of a female character, which is a huge difference.

I’ll wrap up with just one description of many that I loved, and it gives you a sense of the similes of which she’s fond as well as the menacing/disturbing Los Angeles that she captures:

The desk clerk, whose name-plate identified him as G. O. Horner, was a thin, elderly man with protuberant eyes that gave him an expression of intense interest and curiosity. The expression was false. After thirty years in the business, people meant no more to him than individual bees do a beekeeper. Their differences were lost in a welter of statistics, eradicated by sheer weight of numbers. They came and went; ate, drank, were happy, sad, thin, fat; stole towels and left behind toothbrushes, books, girdles, jewellry; burned holes in the furniture, slipped in bathtubs, jumped out of windows. They were all alike, swarming around the hive, and Mr. Horner wore a  protective net of indifference over his head and  shoulders. (p 18-19)

Other reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog and The Game’s Afoot.

Thankfully Millar’s books are being reissued later this year.

 

 

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

soulmates-jessica-groseI was interested in this book because I spotted the word thriller in the jacket copy and I was familiar with the author’s journalism in all sorts of places. I was even more interested when I found out the story is about a young lawyer investigating her estranged husband’s death outside a new age retreat in northern New Mexico: I figured the setup was sinister despite the sort of satirical spin the book starts with (the main character finds out her husband is dead in a headline beginning “Namaslay.” Ultimately, the shift in the book at the halfway mark made it very obvious this really wasn’t the kind of investigation I was looking for, and I ultimately wound up not a fan of the book since I was expecting more of a plot-driven ride instead of a book that, all in all, feels like an expose of a utopian yoga commune.

Here is what the book does well: it captures the emotional state of a woman left by her husband as he went off to lead his spiritually actualized life under the thumb of a guru named Yoni Brooks. The psychological portrait of the woman left behind trying to make sense of her life is the most vivid part of the story. When Dana,  our main character, goes to New Mexico to retrace her husband’s last days, it’s obvious that plot is not the strong  suit of the book. Dana stumbles across her ex-husband’s self-help pamphlet that describes the demise of his marriage, and instead of the book focusing on the investigating and the hunt for answers, it feels like the information magically appears in Dana’s lap. There aren’t really many tense interviews in the book. There aren’t a lot of showdowns in the book. Instead there are people who end up unburdening themselves, and there are some things about Dana making progress in letting go of her anger, but the drive as to finding out the mystery isn’t there. It’s an unexpected shift, and the ending is a bit creepy, but ultimately I’m dissatisfied because I feel duped by the jacket copy and the opening chapter.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of skewering of new-age gurus in what I’ve been reading lately. Unlike the Margaret Millar and Emma Straub books this reminds me of, this book, in contrast, gets into the psychology of why someone would get into the group, and it’s the uncomfortable most of all.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

HarperCollins, September 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

What I Read Over the Summer

I’m writing this post in list-form because I want to get into the habit of blogging again after letting it slide for quite awhile. I’ve been a bit unenthusiastic about what I’ve been reading lately, and, in fact, the last week I’ve been more hooked by the show Friday Night Lights than what I’m reading, which is usually what happens in the middle of winter. I welcome any glowing book recommendations!

  1. I haven’t reviewed much crime fiction lately because it’s either been too gruesome (The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid) or too harrowing. I’ve read about 3 books in the last couple months where kids are the victims, and while I like Denise Mina, Hakan Nesser, and Margaret Millar generally, I also felt uneasy because Field of Blood, Inspector and the Silence, and Banshee were too much for me.
  2. I’m still having trouble finishing Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope after two tries this spring and summer because I get distracted by other books I can read in smaller chunks throughout my work week. This is where having assigned reading in a real life book club would come in handy: I’d feel external pressure to finish it!
  3. I’m still trying to get out of a bit of a reading funk, and my plan to read sample chapters of what’s been sitting on my Kindle for ages hasn’t inspired me yet.
  4. So after browsing my electronic shelves, I browsed at an actual small bookstore in Ann Arbor over the weekend, which led me to a little bit of reading inspiration. I’m looking forward to Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress about Patty Hearst. I don’t know much about the 1970s,  my family didn’t live in the US then so I didn’t learn a lot from them re: Hearst, and I grew up with someone whose Dad was in the FBI working on the Hearst case, all which have piqued my interest.
  5. The best book I read this summer was Heat by Bill Buford. I like narrative nonfiction that feels like it’s been researched a long time, and in this case, besides the research, Buford spent over a year working for Mario Batali. Working in a professional kitchen sounds miserable to me on many levels, but it made for an entertaining read.

Hello again!

I’ve hit a reading patch where either I read slowly or instead read the first half of a book quickly and then get distracted by something new so I never finish the first book. But nevertheless, I have been reading some good stuff I want to mention.

Heat by Bill Buford is part a story about working for Mario Batali as a middle-aged writer for the New Yorker and part history of Italian cooking over the centuries. Since Buford spent over a year (or maybe even over two years) working for Batali and traveling to Italy to learn more, this book is chock full of details. I’m a sucker for long digressions in very thoroughly researched books. And I’m an even bigger sucker for books/documentaries/shows about chefs at work. It seems like such a high-pressure existence, and it’s such a contrast from cooking shows, which make it look so easy. Since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential I love to dip into chef books.

Moving from obsessive chefs I tried a book by obsessive politicians, Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls. The narrator is Beth, a writer married to a man who moves from the Obama campaign to DC to Texas to work on a statewide race advising a friend. It was a quick read with plenty of political and personal drama, and I liked it quite a bit more than Close’s debut Girls in Pretty White Dresses. This may have been my attempt to debrief after my husband’s primary race for a state house seat, which was a much smaller district than any of the campaigns in The Hopefuls. Anyway, I liked it a great deal.

Next, I read the first entry in Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan series, Field of Blood, and plot-wise I was a little underwhelmed, but character-wise I was hooked. I hope the first book felt a little slow for me because Mina was setting the groundwork for more recurring characters.

Finally, the book I keep abandoning after 100 pages is Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. My first attempt faltered when I felt like I didn’t have enough context to read an edition without an introduction or footnotes, and my second attempt faltered when I got bogged down in politics. Now that campaign season is over, I’ll try it again.

Hope you are finding good reads during the last few weeks of the summer. I just started Margaret Millar’s Banshee, and I’m hoping I like it as much as her earlier stuff.

2015 in review

Happy new year, and thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. I’ve been posting less and reading less than in years past, but I very much appreciate your reading and all the reading suggestions you’ve shared. You’ve made my reading life very interesting, and I am very grateful.

2015 is the year I started reading lots of older crime fiction to go along with my love of Scandicrime, and I also went on a few non-crime reading jags to balance out my reading. I anticipate reading lots more Margaret Millar in 2016, not only from my collection of used books but from the new ebook editions that are coming out in the US from Syndicate Books. I’ve also started listening to nonfiction on audio so look for a little variety in upcoming posts.

2015 is also the year I shifted my reading challenges to perpetual mode (read a book from every country and every state in the US). My recordkeeping has a few gaps, but of the about 60 books I read, 11 were set in the US followed by Sweden with 7. I added Ukraine and Cambodia to my countries-of-the-world list but did not fare so well in adding American states to my reading. New York and California were the most common settings in my US reading, and I hope to add more non-coastal states to my 2016 reading.

As for 2016 challenges, I am using two challenges to help combat future reading ruts:

  1. Book Riot Read Harder Challenge– It’s a challenge covering lots of genres and some variety in time periods.
  2. Bustle Reads– It focuses on women and writers of color.

I plan on keeping the challenge categories tucked away in my bag or under my computer keyboard to have on hand when I’m looking for something new to read. I think that works a lot better than committing to a list of intended reads at the beginning of the year.

Finally, I am linking to the WordPress summary of my blog stats for the year for reference and entertainment. The continuing popularity of my Latin American Crime Fiction post makes me realize I haven’t read much if any South American books for the year.

Happy new year, all!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

My Favorite Reads of 2015

2015 is the year when I read a lot more older books than usual, and a good chunk of my favorites were not published this year. My list is all crime fiction except for one true-crime book, and it’s heavy on female authors.

  1. Margaret Millar is my favorite discovery of the year. Her books are shorter, more twisted psychological fiction than what I usually read. Beast in View and How Like an Angel were outstanding, and I’ve read a few more that were good as well.
  2. I’m still a fan of the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The two installments I read this year were good in terms of plot, and I”m still hooked because of the bits of Beck’s backstory that came in in these books. I’m a sucker for serialized stories, even if they don’t end on cliffhangers. The Laughing Policeman and The Fire Engine that Disappeared are quite great.
  3. Continuing the theme of series/ authors I love, Anne Holt’s stuff is so good. I’m not blown away by any particular book, but I am hooked on her two series set in Oslo, the Vik/Stubo and Hanne Wilhelmsen books.
  4. My favorite book I read this year that was published this year was In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward. It has great intertwining mysteries involving a current suicide and a long-ago missing-child case and interesting characters.
  5. Jayne Keeney is my favorite character, still. The Dying Beach was a strong entry in the PI series set in Thailand by Angela Savage.
  6. Mildred Pierce  by James M. Cain was a big surprise. A story about a complicated woman and her complicated daughter. It’s great.
  7. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith was also a surprise to me (it’s been years since I saw the Minghella movie). I have a lot more Highsmith waiting for my on my TBR.
  8. Echoes from the Dead by Johann Theorin was a great first entry in the Öland Quartet.
  9. A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine– ingeniously plotted. She and Millar win the plotting contest among the books I’ve read this year. Also, this book beats Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in terms of criminal undergraduates: Vine’s is more effective because it’s not so long.
  10. This House of Grief by Helen Garner has stayed with me the longest. It’s true-crime following the trial of a man accused of murdering his children, and it’s deeply sad.