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She was a lot more than Mrs. Ross Macdonald

MYSTERY FICTION

Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith

By Margaret Millar; Introduction by Tom Nolan

Soho Press

555 Pages, $17.99

Before Sarah Paretsky and Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie and Ngao Marsh were writing murder mysteries. So were a few other female authors -- including Margaret Millar, who remains less famous now than she was in her heyday, 40 or 50 years ago.

Actually, a couple of clicks in an internet search turns up dozens of women mystery authors, British and American, some with names we knew but forgot, others completely unknown, going back 138 years. Their descendants are turning out more books than an average reader would have time to read, in increasing numbers of sub-genres.

Some are set in Paris, others elsewhere in France, and of course Sarah Paretsky works her beloved Chicago into her books. Add Patricia Cornwell, whose protagonist Virginia medical examiner is based on a real-life 1960s graduate of D'Youville College. These authors pique our interest before we even open a book.  And what a treasure chest of a book has kicked off a yearlong publishing marathon--the complete works of Margaret Millar.

"Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith" leads the seven-volume set with five novels in one compact volume, only an inch-and-a-half thick, with smallish type, perhaps six-point size, but certainly readable.  The flashy cover sports giant red initial Ms in contrast with the gray type inside and the black-and-white world inhabited by her strange characters, some of them downright weird.  But the squeamish reader can be reassured: the characters don't approach the pathology of Patricia Highsmith's characters, and no pet snails dominate the dining room to creep out unsuspecting dinner guests, as in Highsmith's "Deep Water."

She published her first novel in 1941 and also wrote screenplays for Warner Brothers. She won the 1956 Edgar Award for Best Novel, with "Beast in View" and was named a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master in 1983 and Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year in 1965 for her environmental conservation work, so she did get away from the typewriter now and then. She published her first novel in 1941 and also wrote screenplays for Warner Brothers.

Millar's husband, Ross Macdonald, changed his name from Kenneth Millar to avoid clashing his career as a mystery writer against hers. His work has enjoyed a revival in recent decades, but hers has remained out of print.  Until now.

This first volume contains five novels: "Vanish in an Instant," "Wives and Lovers," "Beast in View," "An Air That Kills," and "The Listening Walls," written from 1952 to 1959.  They are works of their time, but never seem dated. Her characters, always physically present, function within the technology of their day: their cars have stick shift and they experience as vividly as Buffalo drivers do to this day, what it feels like to drive on Northern Michigan back roads as rain turns to fat snowflakes and then slippery slush on the pavement.

She writes with care and devises clever plots, holding back plenty of surprises until she is ready to let the reader know--or try to guess--which character will act next, and what they might do.  In "Vanish in an Instant," though, the plot gets so complicated with multiple identities that one twist brought to mind an old Bob & Ray radio sketch featuring the fictitious "Tanglefoot, Greatest Name in Flypaper."  Those odd associations may or may not be coincidental, but I would not put it past Millar to set them up, just for amusement, hers and the reader's.

"The Listening Walls" starts out with la-de-da wealthy women on vacation in Mexico and borders on stereotyping the characters, Mexican and American alike.  When her husband metaphorically moves heaven and earth to divert suspicion for her traveling companion's accidental (or deliberate?) death, a woman reveals her own secret, leaving at least one reader muttering, "What the?" Peeking at the last few paragraphs can spoil the reader's enjoyment of all the measures the husband assembles to clear his wife, and, frankly, blunt the effect of her final pathology.

"Vanish in an Instant" recalls Michigan life in a particularly drab winter. Millar creates a ladies' room so grubby it provokes an inclination to go wash one's hands, and displays her mastery at recreating how weather affects us, especially in winter. She exhibits a virtuoso talent for creating distinct identities for her characters, even if they  might have more than one identity.

These novels happen in an achromatic world.  Some effects of light brighten "The Listening Walls," but in general the scenes come to mind in black and white, ready for a film noir producer to put them into action.

Bringing this hidden treasure back into the light of day had to involve a mess of complicated procedures.  Even the copyright permissions must have been a nightmare of tedium, but this first volume demonstrates that reviving Millar's work makes those efforts worthwhile.  The matching Volumes 3 through 6 must offer new surprises formerly out of print for decades, along with renewed recognition for Margaret Millar's talent.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.

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