Friday, July 24, 2020

Beast In View - Margaret Millar

I don't know if it's coincidence, some sort of weird synchronicity with my books, or just the lens that I'm currently seeing the world through at the moment but 'Beast in View' turned out to be another book that was unexpectedly lockdown relevant. It also turns out that I have 2 copies of it, the paper back that I read, and one in a Library of America anthology of four suspense novels by women crime writers from the 1950s edited by Sarah Weinman.

Normally realising I'd bought a duplicate would annoy me, but this time I feel like I've at least read a chunk of the smart and relatively expensive anthology - which is something. There's also a 40s volume in the same series and I very much recommend both. I didn't buy the other volume because I already had a couple of the books in it, they're excellent, as is Sarah Weinman's anthology of short stories; 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives'. If you like vintage noir at all and don't yet know Weinman's collections - look her up.

There seems to be a reasonable amount of Margaret Millar's work in print, although in a rag tag of different editions and quite a lot of it collected in anthologies, which is good news because she's an amazing writer. I found her via the Pushkin Vertigo series of which I'm a committed fan - and it's as good a place to start reading her as any. When I bough 'Beast In View' (for the second time) it was not long after Pushkin had started reprinting her and the only title I could find in Waterstones Piccadilly (how I dream of going back there, or any other big book shop, or anywhere not locked down).

It turns out to be the story of Helen Clarvoe. Thirty, living alone in an hotel, estranged from her mother and brother, and obviously struggling with something. One night she gets a strange phone call, it's personal and threatening so she writes to the only person she knows who might help her. Paul Blackshear, wo manages her investments. Paul is lonely, bored, and eventually overcomes his disinclination to help Helen who he becomes increasingly fond of. Meanwhile the caller is widening her net to take in the whole Clarvoe family and she's becoming increasingly spiteful and dangerous.

The ending manages to be both shocking and inevitable. We know something is very wrong, and there are clues along the way but for all the final melodrama Millar always manages to keep things under control. We can infer that there was something very wrong with the Clarvoe family, but there's no particular hint as to what it might have been - just that it's left 3 people very damaged. It's Helen's life stuck in her hotel suite, afraid to go out, that made this feel like a lockdown specific novel to me.

Paul's interest in Helen, and her reaction to it are an interesting detail, as are the strained relations between the 3 Clarvoe's. I'm not sure how the depiction of a specific mental health issue stands up to our current understanding, I think Millar is vague enough in the details to make it work, and there's nothing on the NHS website that openly contradicts what she does in this but it's probably worth sign posting anyway.

The other really interesting, and absolutely harrowing aspect of the book is the treatment of a gay character. It's easy to forget, especially if it doesn't affect you personally, how far we've come from this sort of homophobia, and how important it is not to take that for granted. Altogether it's an absolutely gripping read - literally edge of the seat stuff at times, and as compelling as everything I've read by Millar so far. 

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