Monday, January 26, 2009

3. Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar

Fire Will Freeze pictureI added Margaret Millar's name to the little piece of paper I keep in my wallet with books and authors I'm searching for thanks to this favourable review of The Iron Gates in Vintage Hardboiled Reads. It was the Iron Gates that I was specifically looking for because it takes place in Vancouver. But I was equally happy to find Fire Will Freeze, with the front cover blurb "Stranded in an eerie, isolated château in Québec, a most unusual heroine encounters unexpected romance... and a murderer."

This is one of the first books in a while that grabbed me from the first few pages. I'm a lazy-minded person and often have to force myself to concentrate on a novel for a while before I get into it. Fire Will Freeze takes place in the early '40s on a bus heading north to a ski lodge. The "action" is all in the passengers' heads, particularly one very nosy old maid (of 35!) as she eavesdrops on the people around her. Her inner dialogue is so sharp, critical and lively. Right away, there are all these little conflicts and attitudes going on around her (and you the reader) that suck you right in. It's surprisingly frank about sex as well. If not for the clothes and certain turns of phrase, the desires and suppositions that go on in people's heads could easily take place today. I guess because most of our depictions of this period is from the movies, restricted as they were by the Hayes code, we have an exaggeratedly chaste vision of that time.

Nobody on the bus really seems all that happy to be going to the ski lodge. On top of it, there is a blizzard and they are an hour late. There is a lot of grumbling that gets worse when the driver stops the bus to re-attach a chain and then doesn't come back. After a lot of in-fighting and mishaps, the group finally makes it to a must old lodge, housing only a crazy lady and her stern nurse. They are not very welcoming and things get weird fast. Cats are murdered, people disappear, are not what they seem. It's all so crazy that I had trouble believing any of it could make sense, but it all actually does (though I defy any reader to even get a rough grasp on the mystery before the first two-thirds are done). There are a lot of characters to keep track of. I would have liked one of those diagrams like they had on the old Key mystery pulp paperbacks. But it's still fun as their true natures are slowly revealed and you definitely want to find out what's behind the mystery.

The aforementioned old maid is ostensibly the heroine of the story, as the majority of the book is seen from her perspective and she is the most competent and honest of the bunch. But even she isn't all that impressive so you can imagine how the rest appear. There is the rich, fat, lazy old lady and her drunken, weak-minded poet protégé. The spoiled brat. The slutty dancer who refuses to take responsibility. The feckless tycoon father and his headstrong daughter (who is portrayed as quite competent, but completely unsympathetic, almost sociopathic). Her portrayal of the characters is as critical and removed and possibly more scathing than those of John Christopher. The set-up itself, though in a North American context, reminded a lot of Christopher: put a bunch of people in a mysterious, stressful situation so you can expose their weakness of character. Millar does this well and though her observations are perhaps more abrupt and cutting, she seems to love their foibles rather than weary in quiet despair as Christopher does.

It's an imperfect book because the mystery and the personalities compete for your attention in the middle of the book. It loses some of its momentum and focus because of this. It is lively and entertaining nonetheless. The characters are rich and intriguing and some pretty good shocks go down. You can tell that Millar is a tough, critical-thinking person who didn't pull any punches. I want that from my mystery atuhors. Her books today appear hard to find and she will definitely be on my list.

She is actually quite well known to mystery fans as one half of one of the more successful mystery writer couples, the other half being Ross Macdonald. There is a great article here about their lives and careers together. In some ways, she was more succesful as a writer, but the endurance of Travis McGee has kept his name around longer than hers.

3 comments:

beemused said...

I was gonna put this on my 'to read' list, but then I got to the part about cats getting murdered. now I'm not so sure!

Olman Feelyus said...

Yes, it's a bit rough. As I said, she doesn't pull any punches. On the other hand, it's not excessively cruel or sadistic either.

Buzby said...

I like the new look of your blog! Now that you are in your forties it's time for a change.

This book sounds cool. I will search for the one based in Vancouver.