The Syndicate MM books are in most ways appealing editions and they look amazing on a shelf, with their cleverly decorated spines (more on this in an upcoming post), though I have one major caveat here, in that the print in most of the books is really tiny. I mean really tiny.
I. Mean. Really. Tiny. Not this bad, but unpleasantly so, at least for my eyes.
In the first volume, for example, Syndicate collected all three of Millar's Paul Prye mysteries and both of the Inspector Sands mysteries, and it's wonderful to have them all in one place (or at all, the first two tales in the volume, being very hard to find indeed, as they were never reprinted previously). Yet if you have poor eyesight like I do you may find reading them rather a trial, one with a hanging judge no less.
For this review I was fortunate to have an original edition of Worm (no dust jacket, sadly) and it was to this copy I turned, for the sake of mine eyes. I got my copy about 15 years ago for the true bargain price of $25 (a knowing dealer would ask $100 or more today, I imagine), but I had been saving it for years as a treat, having read about everything else written by Millar. She most assuredly is one of my favorite crime writers, as you will know if you are a regular reader of this blog.
Fortunately, Syndicate Books seems to be releasing all the Millar mysteries as eBooks as well, including Worm, which will be available in this form in January. So though I'm picking this book as my second reprint of the year. If I were you I would wait and get the eBook next month, next year. Do your eyes a favor.
Now on to the review!
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The name "Paul Prye" itself is an allusion to a once hugely popular English literary work: John Poole's three-act farce Paul Pry (1825), about a meddlesome busybody consumed with idle curiosity "who conveniently leaves behind his umbrella everywhere he goes in order to have an excuse to return and eavesdrop."
Well, if that's not a description of a classic amateur detective, I don't know one. And, indeed, it's reported that at the end of the play Paul Pry justifies his incessant snooping by retrieving "papers from a well that incriminate more serious troublemakers." (Quotes come from our friends at Wikipedia.) Incidentally, Erle Stanley Gardner in his pre Perry Mason days had already created a pulp "Paul Pry" in his early crime stories. The term Paul Pry had entered the vernacular, like "Benedict Arnold," if with rather less damning resonance.
Margaret Millar must have had a very clear idea of what she was doing with The Invisible Worm. Her first crime novel is a straight-up detective novel, in the specific style of the manners mysteries associated with British Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Divested of that certain twee feeling I frequently get from Ngaio Marsh's books, it wouldn't be all that hard to imagine Marsh having written this book, with one other significant difference that comes to mind (see below).
|"Hope I don't intrude"|
Listen to Paul Pry
Essentially The Invisible Worm is a humorous country house mystery that satirizes the wealthy Hays family and its friends and dependents who are present when a dead body is discovered murdered on the main hallway of the mansion. There is a complex plot involving foul play and other poor behavior, which ultimately is solved by our amateur sleuth, though only after four people have been slaughtered, which is arguably excessive literary bloodletting on Millar's part--though of course this is an American mystery, after all. Hammett would have killed that many people by the end of the first chapter.
I thought The Invisible Worm a wonderful mystery. If the plot is a bit...chunky, lacking the peerless silky smoothness of an Agatha Christie or, indeed, Millar's own later Fifties essays in "domestic suspense" (in plot I'd say Worm bears some resemblance to a Mary Robert Rinehart novel), the book more than makes up for it with its amusing, frequently pungent, writing and characterization.
|Paul Pry points the finger|
Perhaps this is meant to be Naperville, Illinois? Millar grew up in Berlin (today Kitchener), Ontario, about a seven hours drive distant. In any event, it's the characters, not the setting, which is important here.
There is almost an embarrassment of riches in investigators, there being a well drawn policeman, Inspector William Bailey, and underling, Sergeant Abbott; a nosy middle-aged spinster, in the form of the bachelor Bailey's housekeeping, churchgoing Presbyterian sister Amanda, herself a Pauline Prey surely; and, of course, our genial, poetry-quoting amateur, 'tec Dr. Paul Prye, who is staying at the Hays house to observe George Hays' wife, Barbara, said over the years to have "become a bit touched."
|in the 19th century|
Paul Pry memorabilia
like this Toby jug
enjoyed great popularity
with the English public
Barbara's avid tennis-playing second cousin, Richard Vanstone; Eve's Adonis-like, curly black-haired and blue-eyed fiance, Christopher Wells; Peter Morgan, junior partner in George's firm (whatever it is) and Peter's pretty wife, Sally; and Titian-tressed beauty Angela Breton, a guest of Barbara's and one cool customer.
And there are the servants, of course. There is an English butler (but naturally), a cook, a rather peripheral housekeeper and a movies-mad maid, Mamie Hodge, who, aside from watching film stars, likes nothing better than eavesdropping on the conversation of her social betters, especially after there's been a murder or two (or three) in the house.
Millar's treatment of Mamie is condescending, admittedly, but it is a portrayal that is firmly in line with the comic servant tradition, of long pedigree in literature, stage plays and opera, and it's done rather amusingly here. She's a character you want to see return in another book, which I would imagine is the best you can say about a character created by a series novelist.
The same is true of Millar's superb Rinehartish nosy spinster, Amanda Bailey, who could very well have featured in her own series, had Millar decided to write HIBK crime novels, which was then as viable a form in the US as English manners mystery. She's a great personality who can nose out crime with the best of them, if not necessarily solutions (and the name works too).
|sign outside The Paul Pry|
Dr. Prye was six feet, five inches tall. Dressed in immaculate white flannels topped with a navy-blue blazer, he looked like a man of the world, and the rather quizzical smile in his blue eyes suggested that he was also a man amused by the world.
Yet he is a psychiatrist too, and he is very much a practicing one in this novel. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while the British Crime Queens were minding their manners, American crime writers, many of them women, were starting to plumb the dark depths of criminal minds.
I can't help wondering whether Paul Prye might have been partly inspired by Dr. Basil Willing, another amateur sleuth created by another accomplished American crime writer, a close contemporary of Millar's: Helen McCloy. (She's been reviewed here several times as well.) The Crime Queens seemed less interested in clinical psychology than their American (and Canadian-American) sisters. Too much sound English common sense for that, I suppose!
But Millar's style is really all her own, even here in her first novel, when she is in full comic mode, splendidly amusing, if rather out of keeping, it must be admitted, with William Blake and his deathly serious "The Sick Rose." I'll have some more observations on Millar's writing here in a later post.