Tuesday, February 15, 2011

8. How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

Will 2011 be the year of Margaret Millar? How Like an Angel did not rock my world like Beast in View, but I am still blown away by how talented a writer Millar is. This is much more of a straightforward mystery, albeit an engaging and interesting one. Joe Quinn is a gambler and laid-off casino P.I. who gets dropped off in the middle of the desert after a binge at the tables. He wanders onto the property of a strange religious commune and from there gets mixed up in a mystery that involves bank embezzlement, small town real estate and, of course, murder.

Quinn meets an old woman in the commune who helps him out. In return, she asks him to find out the fate of one Patrick O'Gorman, who lived in the small nearby town of Chilcote. She doesn't say why and when he finds out that not only is O'Gorman missing and presumed dead, but that his mysterious disappearance 5 years ago caused a scandal that the town still hasn't gotten over. Intrigued, he starts to dig deeper.

What's great about this book are the excellent locations, especially the little fringe California town of Chilcote that was once primarily agricultural and since dominated by oil money. You can understand why so many writers lived or wrote about Southern California in the 20th century. It was a dynamic place, but also so atmospheric. She really captures the feel of a too-hot desert town. The cult is also quite neat, a precursor to the communes of the 60s.

What didn't quite work for me was the romantic angle, where the protagonist seems to all of a sudden fall in love with O'Gorman's widow. I mean yes she seemed like an admirable woman, but the falling in love came out of nowhere. Maybe that's how it worked back when you couldn't have pre-marital sex, but it seemed forced to me.

Margaret Millar was an amazing person. She was Canadian but moved to the States after marrying her husband, Ross MacDonald. She did a ton of conservation work and wrote kick-ass novels. I wonder if anyone has written a good biography of her? It's funny because she was quite succesful, both commercially and critically, and yet her name has sort of faded while everyone still knows who Ross MacDonald is. Is that simply the male bias of publishing and the crime genre or simply a testament to the longevity of having a single recurring detective?

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