Saturday, February 4, 2023

Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye: Wall of Eyes (1943), by Margaret Millar

The Millars--Kenneth, aka Ross Macdonald, and his wife Margaret--were one of mystery fiction's great power writing couples, though they didn't write their mysteries together.  Between 1944 and 1976 Ross Macdonald published two dozen crime novels, only stopping when the early onset of Alzheimer's Disease made it impossible for him to keep writing, while between 1941 and 1986--an impressive 45 year span--his wife Margaret Millar published 21 crime novels and four mainstream novels, surpassing her husband's total by a single volume.

Margaret Millar started first and achieved the earliest fame when her psychological crime novel The Iron Gates (1945) was optioned as a Hollywood film vehicle starring Bette Davis.  (Unfortunately the project fell through.)  Ross Macdonald's career would belatedly take off in a big way a quarter century later in 1969 when laudations from the New York Times catapulted his books to bestselling status.  However, both authors had their partisans and they do so today.

I think both husband and wife were great crime writers, but it's probably safe to say that Millar wrote in a subgenre--so-called "domestic suspense"--which I find generally more congenial.  Long undervalued, domestic suspense has been quite coming back into its own of late, ever since Gone Girl hit so big around a  decade ago.  

Unquestionably Millar was one of the masters--or mistresses--of domestic suspense, just as Macdonald was one of the leading figures in the hard-boiled field.  However, Macdonald has benefitted from having a diligent biographer, Tom Nolan, who published a fine biography of the author in 1999 and sixteen years later co-edited, along with biographer Suzanne Marrs, a collection, entitled Meanwhile There Are Letters, of Macdonald's Seventies correspondence with the great southern American writer Eudora Welty, who was, it seems undeniable, rather smitten with him on a personal level--and he with her.  (Marrs is a biographer of Welty.)

It has been suggested that Ross and Eudora could have been a great romantic couple, had not Margaret Millar stood villainously in the way.  Certainly Meanwhile There Are Letters lends itself to this interpretation.  

While the RM biography portrayed the Millars' marriage as a rather rocky one, it nevertheless allowed in more positive portrayals as well from the numerous acquaintances of the couple whom Nolan interviewed.  Millar I find comes off far more negatively in Letters, where Welty's voice comes to the fore.  Welty, one might say, was not a fan of Millar--certainly on a personal level, but apparently on the reading level as well.  She heaped praise upon praise upon Macdonald's books but if she had a positive thing to say about Millar's I don't recall it.  Which is strange, considering that Welty was a great fan of mystery fiction, including the sort of psychological crime fiction at which Millar excelled.  But then it's clear that Welty simply didn't like Millar on a personal level, and doubtlessly that affected her view of everything Millar did.

Welty--who only actually met Macdonald a few times in person--was highly critical of Millar's treatment of her husband when he became afflicted with Alzheimer's; and there's no question that Millar lost her temper with Macdonald and on occasion berated him.  Welty was quite condemnatory of this, but then she never had to walk in those particular caregiver's shoes.  Taking care of someone with a disease like Alzheimer's is not easy, and we must remember that Millar herself was in her sixties and suffering from failing eyesight.  For all the undeniable appeal of the letters, Eudora Welty played only  a walk-on part in the drama of Ross Macdonald's daily life.

Still, there's no question, I think, that Millar, a native Canadian, was a rather unsentimental person with a mordant view of life and that didn't wear well with Welty, a florid, indeed occasionally gushy, southerner.  Doubtlessly Welty was more obviously loving and lovable.  An anecdote told by Welty that is included in Letters (which appears in Marr's biography of Welty but not Nolan's biography of Macdonald) highlights the differences between the two women. 

Upon learning of Macdonald's death in a care home in 1983, Welty wrote a good friend--retired editor Mary Lou Aswell, who decades earlier had co-written a Q. Patrick detective novel, SS Murder, with Richard Wilson Webb--the following embittered words: 

I'm glad it is over for him, and what I've come to feel is that he is FREE.  In particular of Margaret Millar, whose screaming abuse of him (it was in public) never did cease, when all he could do was stand there and take it.  After he was dead, when she was talking to her agent...she [the agent] asked if Ken had yet been cremated, [and] she [Millar] said, "Well, I really don't know-he may have been.  At some  point a charter plane scatters the ashes over the Santa Barbara channel, it's a service--I have nothing to do with it, and I'm working."  She was home working the night Ken died, and I don't know whether or not anybody was with him.

You very much get the sense of the southern lady here, especially in the words, "it was in public."  Whatever else Millar was, she was no southern lady.  She was blunt and often caustic--in real life and in her writing too.

In fact Millar's lack of sentimentalism over cremations appeared in print four decades earlier in her fourth detective novel Wall of Eyes, which some might deem her breakthrough book rather than The Iron Gates.  The novel is about a murder in the household of a genteel but neurotic Toronto family, the Heaths. When the novel opens the household consists of 

Its head Kelsey Heath, a beautiful but imperious blind woman who inherited control of the family money from her equally imperious late mother, Isobel

Kelsey's sister Alice, dutiful and rather embittered about it

Their jovial, irresponsible playboy brother Johnny

Their dotty widowed father, Mr. Heath, whose spirit was long ago crushed by the late Isobel

Kelsey's pianist fiance Philip, a determined hanger-on

And of course the servants: the maids, loyal Letty and insolent Ida; snooty butler Maurice; and a cook too, though I don't believe we ever see her.  

In terms of this setting Wall of Eyes could be an British manners mystery, though in fact it's much harder hitting.  Just compare the nightclub milieu with Ngaio Marsh's in Swing, Brother, Swing/A Wreath for Rivera, for example (reviewed by me here).  Marsh merely daintily skims surfaces, while Millar deigns to her fingers dirty.

The scene in the book which I'm talking about takes place in the novel between series sleuth Inspector Sands, who appears in three Millar detective novels, and Mr. Heath.  Margaret Millar later boasted to a Canadian newspaper interviewer that the great English poet W. H. Auden, who taught a class in which Ross Macdonald was enrolled in 1941 when he was a graduate student in English at the University of Michigan, told her that it was "one of his favorite scenes in any novel."  (Auden himself was a great mystery reader.)  

WH Auden
Ross Macdonald was a favored student
of his at the university of Michigan

Tom Nolan, who interviewed Millar for his Macdonald biography, quotes her on this story too:

"He [Auden] read one of my books and he thought it was terrific....He laughed himself sick about this certain scene I'd written....I was of course flattered."

Nolan, however, got the story wrong in his bio, declaring that in the novel "a character uses his trouser cuff as an impromptu ashtray."  Who is going to laugh himself sick over this?

I'll quote from the book so we get it right.  It's much funnier than that which is in Nolan's account, and also quite boldly irreverent.  

They both looked solemnly around the room but there was no ashtray.

I usually use my pants cuffs in moments like this," Sands said.  "But I haven't any cuffs."  

"I haven't either," Mr. Heath said.  He looked pleased and self-conscious like a schoolboy conspiring with his hero.  "There's that vase over there."

A Greek black-figured vase stood on the mantel, alone and important.  Sands lifted it off the mantel and passed it to Mr. Heath.  They both flicked their ashes into it, then Sands placed the vase on the floor between their chairs. 

"Isobel," Mr. Heath said.


"I said, that's Isobel."

"Oh.  Where?"

"In the vase."

"Is it?"

"Yes, that's Isobel."

Sands looked inside the vase and there, sure enough, was Isobel, pulverized beyond recognition.  He replaced the vase carefully on the mantel and brushed his hands on his trousers.

"Well," he said.  "If it'd been me I wouldn't have minded."

"Ashes to ashes."


So you will see that quite clearly what Auden laughed himself sick over was the two men dumping their cigarette ashes over those of Mr. Heath's dead wife Isobel.  

I thought it was a very funny scene as well when I read it, albeit in the Charles Addams sense, for sure.  So I think we can see now why Millar was unsentimental about her own husband's ashes!  

In fact Millar remained consistent unto herself until the endings of Ross' life and her own, but I can see how it would seem absolutely horrid to the more proper Welty.  I have my Mom's ashes and I sometimes look at the mantel and see the brass vase there which the mortuary provided and think, what is the point of it, they are just ashes.  But I, more sentimental than Margaret Millar, likely will scatter them over some ground in her home town someday.  I'd like to think it really means something.

Wall of Eyes is punctuated with mordant humor, but in contrast with its three predecessors, it's a very dark book, especially for its day, when women's suspense novels still tended to end in marriage (or its looming prospect) for their much put-upon good girl heroines.  In truth, Wall of Eyes' "heroine" Alice is not all that likable, perhaps like the author herself.  It's a daring gambit for a women's suspense author of the Forties.

Millar deliberately makes Alice--and indeed all of the Heaths, dotty Mr. Heath excepted--very much limited--nearsighted, if you will--by their own sheltered, upper class environment.  Later in the novel Millar brings in underworld figures from the Toronto nightclub world and the connections and contrasts between these figures and the upper class Heaths is quite intriguing.  Millar's is very much an author who presents characters "warts and all," be they upper or lower case, as it were.  This serves to make them realer, in my eyes.  

No one in this novel is idealized for the ease and comfort of the sensitive reader.  This is definitely not a cozy book.  Indeed there are quite a few references to sexuality, including the word "gonorrhea," spelled right out.  I wasn't surprise to find that Doubleday, Doran, the conventional publisher of her first three mysteries, balked at the sordidness and squalor in Eyes and refused to publish the book.  This sent its determined author instead to Random House, where she was vindicated when she got a much better contract.  

Parts of Eyes could even be deemed hard-boiled.  At this time in their lives both Millar and Macdonald were Raymond Chandler admirers and it shows in this book, as it would in many of Macdonald's.  Millar in fact evinced much of the same sardonic impatience with the world which characterized Chandler's world view.

Toronto Forties nightclub

For me Wall of Eyes has everything: interesting characters, sharp writing and a clever plot, with the patented Millar solar plexus twist.  (Was this the first time she achieved this in a novel?)  Indeed, I think it's one of the more important Forties crime novels and, indeed, I prefer it to The Iron Gates which seems to me more a novel about a woman's mental breakdown than a crime novel.  

Both of these novels benefit from the presence of Millar's short-lived series sleuth Inspector Sands.  Fictional sleuths tend to be projections of that creators, I find, meaning that if you have an interesting creator, you get an interesting sleuth.  Sands is a fascinating example of the Great Detective, who stands emotionally apart from events, always watching, always observing, living seemingly vicariously.  At the end of the novel he just wants "to get home, back to his familiar loneliness and anonymity, submerge like a submarine for a time."  Sands cuts a modern figure, as does this superb, ahead-of-its-time detective novel.  


  1. The clash between Millar and Auden over her husband you mention elsewhere suggests that there were potential problems in that relationship long before Welty appeared.

    1. Indeed! MM thought other men--and women--had designs on her handsome husband. Both spouses had interesting takes on homosexuality in their books. It's probably time we thought of RM as an LGTBQ writer. The bio asserts he had sexual relations with other boys as an adolescent, though if you blink you'll miss it; and that he continued to suspect himself of having sexual attraction toward men as an adult.