Saturday, December 15, 2018

Reprint of the Year 2: The Invisible Worm (1941), by Maragret Millar

My second choice for Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year is the formerly extremely rare book The Invisible Worm (1941), the debut detective novel by Margaret Millar.  This year Soho Crime's imprint Syndicate Books in its Collected Millar series reprinted every Margaret Millar book published (including Crippen & Landru's MM short story collection), an impressive feat indeed and one which the author, one of the great 20th century crime writers, richly merited, especially when much of the crime fiction of her husband, Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald), is being reprinted by the hard-boiled and noir fixated Library of America.  In that line Margaret so far has been confined to one volume "for the ladies," if you will, and even that would not have happened had it not been for the determined efforts of Sarah Weinman, one suspects.

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.

Margaret Millar does not actually quote William Blake's short poem "The Sick Rose" until near the end of her detective novel The Invisible Worm, so unless you are a Blake enthusiast like me, who was motivated by reading "The Lamb" and "The Tiger" in high school English class to go out and read Songs of Innocence and Experience, you may not know know the reference when you start. However, Millar's genteel amateur detective, lanky psychiatrist Dr. Paul Prye, quotes Blake throughout the novel, so it is not so hard to make the connection, even for people with tenuous recollection of the great English poet.  Paul Prye is an amateur sleuth in what is essentially an English manners mystery, so of course he periodically spouts poetry.  Because it's what they do, don't you know.

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
If Worm were set in England, rather than, as it is, in the United States, in a wealthy Chicago suburb, there wouldn't be any doubt that it is a manners mystery.  (Millar was Canadian by birth, after all.)  Like many of her American contemporaries, Millar would soon move away from formal detection, but here she's, well, knee deep in clues and queries. 

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
The novel revolves initially around the hyoscine poisoning of a man who is revealed to have been a nasty society blackmailer.  Certainly as the investigations, both official and unofficial, into his death take place, there are plenteous skeletons found in the closets of the family and friends of millionaire George Hays, at whose mansion in the town of Mertonville, outside Chicago, the murder takes place.

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

Additionally we have a 22-year-old daughter, headstrong Eve, and a neurotic son of nearly 20, Simon, as well as the following guests (the first more or less permanent):

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
Rayleigh, Essex
As for unsubtly named Paul Prye, he very much resembles, to be sure, the genial genteel amateur tecs of the British Crime Queens and Detection Dons.  He seems an admixture compounded of Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Roderick Alleyn, Nigel Strangeways and the like.  Here's his initial description:

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.


  1. This sounds really quite good. Almost thou persuadest vote against mine own. But you (and our colleagues) have me hoping that Santa leaves me some cold, hard cash for buying my own presents and I can add most of the nominees to my shelves.

    1. I do think you would like it, Bev. Hope Santa delvers a good haul!

  2. Well. I was going to point you to the Britten, and there it is!

    I lived in Millar's hometown, Kitchener once called Berlin. The local library had disgracefully little by her, and only a bit more by him, who also lived and went to school in town. It's sad, one smallish city can claim two of the greatest crime writers ever, and there is no hint of it there, nothing.

    1. Yes, it's the same thing with Mignon Eberhart's home town in Nebraska. At least Todd Downing's home town in Oklahoma recognizes him at the local museum, but there's no marker in front of his house. A shame.

      I had never heard this Britten piece before. Much darker than the book!

  3. I have never heard of this title by Millar before, nor did I release how extensive the Millar reprinting has been this year. Only see the Vanish in an Instant reprints advertised on Twitter. So thanks for this post, as this one does sound very intriguing indeed.

    1. It's all back! At least in the U.S. Great news for Millars fans.

  4. Small World Dept.: I've just started reading this, in the Syndicate edition you mention at the outset. I'm only on page 5 (granted, that'd be about page 32 in any edition with normal-sized print) and have already laughed uproariously twice.

    1. Millar had a fine sense of humor, which she maintained in her fiction, though it's submerged in all the wickedness.

  5. Sounds good!

    Modern layouts, by the way, are appalling. The ideal paperback size is the old Pan / Penguin / Pocket Book format: tight and (to use your phrase) easy on the eyes. Modern books are much wider, so the text is strung out; and there are whacking great gaps between the lines. Ebooks are a lot easier to read! (And do Agatha Christie books need to be around 450 pages?)

    1. Way too much dead space in books, in order to make them look longer, because we all know more words must be better, right?

      I grew up reading Agatha Christie in books of under 200 pages and that was just right. Nice sharp dark ink too.

      Of course these Millar editions are omnibus editions and they have to be big, but I just wish the print was larger. It makes reading a chore, which is not what it should be.