(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Margaret Millar first began writing in the style of classic Golden Age detection, with series series characters, plots that challenge readers to race to solve the crime before the end, final revelatory chapters, and even her version of the English country-house mystery. Each of her series characters appears in three books, though one, The Devil Loves Me (1942), includes both Prye and Sands. Her first books, The Invisible Worm and The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942), were good-natured, amusing mysteries with some clever psychological twists and insights. With her short series featuring the Toronto detective Inspector Sands, she settled into a more serious style and began to establish herself as a master of the psychological thriller.

The first of her books to win both critical and popular acclaim was The Iron Gates. This was her second and last book with Sands as the detective-hero. For decades, Millar abandoned the series format and wrote her novels as separate works of fiction that share only an emphasis on the psychological portrait. Each of her novels (until the Tom Aragon series in 1976) introduces the reader to a completely new cast of characters and set of circumstances. In her three or four best books, such as The Fiend, How like an Angel, and Beast in View, Millar created highly original and self-contained works of literature that would not have been served by having to conform to a series format.

It can be argued that the second of Millar’s series characters, Inspector Sands, simply faded into the background of her books. He is a thoroughly uninteresting character whose sole mark of distinction is that he has no distinction. Indistinguishable from millions of other graying, middle-aged men, he has “no strong sense of identity” and lives “in a vacuum.” With Millar’s interest in the psychologically and physically colorful, such a character was bound to be short-lived.

Millar’s final venture into the realm of the series detective, with Tom Aragon, belongs more to the psychological portrait novels of her later writing. Dark and often disturbing in tone, the three Aragon books are far from the amusement of Prye or the careful and successful detection of Sands. Aragon is thrust into situations that test his morals as well as his detecting skills, and he himself is nearly the victim of some of his mysteries, as in Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976), in which he is framed for a series of murders that follow his efforts at investigation—an investigation that he later learns has made him an unwitting accomplice of the murderer.

Although Millar does not follow any set formula in writing her novels, there are several features they share. Complex webs of plotting provide a high level of suspense that is usually resolved in the end in a final revelatory scene. During the course of the novel, shifts in perception and ongoing reinterpretations create a whirling effect of constant surprise in which things are never as they seem. For the most part, Millar’s talent at plotting and penetrating characterization makes these shifts wholly believable, as the reader constantly comes to new understandings along with the characters. Each of her books focuses on the inner life of one character. Usually this character is under some kind of stress, caused by either a set of outward circumstances that challenges the character’s notions about reality or some kind of psychological disorder. In Banshee, the mysterious circumstances surrounding a young girl’s death change all the people around her and their relationships in sad and shocking ways.

In The Fiend, the protagonist is a young man whose mental problems cause his sense of...

(The entire section is 1533 words.)