Friday, December 31, 2010
73. Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Still swinging! Got one last book in before the year ends.
As a general rule, I have very little interest in bookstores that only sell new books. I like them and lament there fate in the internet and big box age, but there is nothing to be discovered there for me, generally speaking. However, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, California, is an exception to this rule. It's a science fiction and fantasy bookstore that is overstocked to the point of books lining the floors under shelves. They do have a used section but it is limited to two shelves way in the back. However, they have such a wide stock of new books that there are many things to be discovered there. I don't know if it's because they keep stuff that is long out of print, or do orders with small publishing houses or perhaps distributors that still have old stock, but you can find new copies of books that are long out of print. For example, they have at least 5 different books by Margaret Millar, all new but quite old. The copy of Beast in View that I bought is a Caroll & Graf paperback released in 2000. I normally do not buy new books but Margaret Millar, despite her past popularity, has proven extremely hard to find in the used book stores that I have frequented, so I picked this one up as well as The Fiend (with the creepiest cover of a dude in a raincoat watching a girl on a swing).
Beast in View begins with an old maid, who isn't that old, living by herself in a hotel suite. She receives a very disturbing prank call from a female stranger who claims to know her and seems to know too much about her. This call disturbs the woman deeply and she calls the man who handled her late father's estate, the only person she really has any connection with at this point. The financial advisor is near retiring and at loose ends with the death of his own wife and so takes up the woman's case, though it is not really his line of work. The set-up is fairly straightforward but the execution that follows is not. Millar takes us into the lives of many different characters, connected only tangentially (at least at first) to the old maid and the prank caller. Many chapters starts out from the perspective of a new character, which almost becomes disorienting, except that a much larger and richer story of a completely dysfunctional family, twisted from their own emotional failings and the restrictive social pressures of late '50s white upper middle class America, comes slowly and intriguingly to the surface.
And what a dark story it is. The characters are so desperate, lost and damaged and Millar's portrayal so penetrating that it is almost painful to read at times, except that her language is so deliciously nasty and the intrigue so gripping that you keep turning the pages. This book reminded me a lot of Patricia Highsmith, that same kind of realistic and unflinching regard at other people's broken minds. I think that perhaps Millar has some sympathy for her characters, where Highsmith had none, but I think such a statement requires reading more of Millar's works, which I definitely will do. Beast in View is a great little novel with a tight, rewarding ending that caps off a dark, ugly journey into the despairing, twisted minds of the lost souls of Southern California's bourgeoisie. Strongly recommended.