Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

mildred pierceMildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Originally published 1941

This edition: Vintage Books, 2011

I bought the book.

I picked this book to broaden my reading horizons and because I like the incentive of getting to watch a movie version or two. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read anything hardboiled from Cain, Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and I figured a book centering on a woman would be a little less annoying than others. I’m so far from annoyed: I really liked this odd novel which Wikipedia calls hardboiled and which I would call spare and quite bitter. It’s not a story that centers on a crime, though there is some crime.

This is a book about southern California during the Great Depression. The land dealings, the subdividing, the failing fortunes of Mildred’s husband and her lover Monte Bergaron, mudslides and more make it feel like a book about its time and place.

At the beginning of the book, Mildred splits from her husband the troubled real estate developer and has to figure out a way to support herself and her two daughters. I don’t come across books that go into such detail about money and running a business as this: there is lot of information about running a chicken-and-waffle place and a catering business. The story also follows Mildred and her romantic partners, and more importantly, her relationship with her daughter Veda. It’s probably the most dysfunctional mother and child pairing I’ve read about, and it’s quite gripping. You can tell this was written when psychoanalysis was in vogue. If you’re interested in the psychology of the book, I liked this post. 

The turnings of the plot weren’t the draw, though every third of the book seems to switch, which kept things interesting. It felt very open though Mildred held so much back: Cain was in her head.

I haven’t read anything quite like Mildred Pierce. It’s dark. It’s psychological. It’s about money and sex and thwarted ambition. It’s really quite remarkable.


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.



Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman


Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine, 5 February 2013
Alex Delaware book 28
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sometimes I feel like jumping into a familiar series instead of trying new-to-me authors, and while I haven’t read all of the Alex Delaware series, I have read the first twenty-four in the span of about seven years.  Part of the reason is that I’m a completist, and part of the reason was I was in a mood to read a book where I knew what to expect.

Alex Delaware is a psychologist specializing in children who has consulted for the Los Angeles Police Department for a number of years.  His investigative partner is Milo Sturgis, who has a huge amount of autonomy in his investigations that he gained with a deal with a superior during an earlier book.  That’s about all the background that’s necessary to jump into the series:  the characters haven’t changed a great deal since the beginning of the series, and the investigations take precedent over the main characters’ personal lives.

The story begins with a pregnant mother unearthing an old skeleton of an infant in her backyard in a nice neighborhood of Los Angeles.  The investigation ramps into high gear when another baby’s skeleton is discovered in a nearby park along with a dead woman.  The bulk of the book is devoted to Milo and Alex’s interviews as they investigate the deaths, and the investigation reaches into Alex’s past as a psychologist practicing in a pediatric hospital as well as into the lives of A-list actors and the people who work for them.  It’s the characters circling around the crime that are the focus of this book.

It was refreshing that this far into the series that Delaware is able to admit to himself that he’s “compulsive and addicted to the bad stuff,” which explains why he devotes so much of his professional life to consulting with the LAPD instead of taking on private clients.  Maybe I’m just as compulsive because I can’t give up this series!  In any case, it’s an entertaining read, especially for fans of the rest of the series.

The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly

The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch book 4

Little Brown, 2003 (originally published 1995)

Source: I borrowed the e-book from the library

It’s been a few months since I’ve read any American crime fiction– and it’s been a few years since I’ve read any Michael Connelly at all– so I decided to jump back into the Harry Bosch series set in Los Angeles.   I decided to give the series another shot when I noticed that this particular book delved into Bosch’s back story:  he investigates the 33 year old murder of his mother, a prostitute, while he’s on involuntary stress leave from the Los Angeles Police Department.  I figured a little psychological insight and back story on the lone detective would be interesting, especially so early in the series.  I did like the back story and therapy sessions in the book more than the actual mystery, in the end.

The book is set in 1993, a time very close to the Rodney King beating, which is still affecting the LAPD, and soon after a devastating earthquake that has made Bosch’s home unhabitable.  The book finds Bosch at sea work-wise and home-wise, and that is his impetus for taking on an independent investigation into his mother’s unsolved murder.  Early on he discovers the main players in the plan to keep his mother’s murder unsolved, but there are a few surprises along the way.  I’m not too keen on his love interest in the book because she feels more like a plot device than a real person, but it’s not a horrible shortcoming of the book.  The Last Coyote was a quick read for me, and I think I’ll read more of the series soon.  If I hadn’t learned so much of Bosch’s backstory in this book, I wouldn’t be as interested in the rest of the series.

Another review appears in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog.