Saturday, July 09, 2011

37. Banshee by Margaret Millar

I'm so happy to have discovered Margaret Millar.  She is a great writer with a dark side who enjoys going deep into the ugliness and weakness in people's personalities.  She isn't quite as relentlessly pessimistic as Patricia Highsmith and her explorations feel more colourful.  When she is looking at darkness, though, she really doesn't flinch, so though her style and content is more colourful, I really get the feeling they shared a very similar perspective on humanity.  It's too bad that I had to "discover" her, because in her time, she was a very popular and respected writer.  I wouldn't be surprised if she sold more books than Highsmith.  It's funny that Millar isn't getting the same kind of respect today.  She deserves a line of beautifully-designed reprints with fawning introductions.  I wonder if she had moved to Europe would she perhaps be getting the Highsmith treatment today.  Instead, she spent the last of her almost 80 years living happily with her husband Ross MacDonald (for whose success she was in a large part responsible) in Santa Barbara.  Oh yes, she is also Canadian.  So basically pretty awesome.

Banshee is the story of a young girl in a small, wealthy California community whose body is found in the forest near her house after having disappeared for several months.  The book begins with one short chapter that gives us a brief picture of the girl's life before she died, a happy one with two dogs, parents, grandfather and a maid who love her; an architecturally-designed playhouse and a big forest to explore with her older cousin.  The real story of the book begins with her funeral, where the minister, whose wavering faith was finally broken by the little girl's murder, decides to team up with her dad to finish the job the police could not.  There are two narratives here, the investigation and how all the characters around the girl are coping with her death.  There are a lot of damaged, flamboyant and weird characters in this world and some ugly relationships between them. We get to go in deep.  Part of Millar's skill was that she could really lay out a character in a subtle but satisfying way without a lot of text.  A hushed discussion between the well-groomed Mr. Cunningham and his alcoholic mother during the funeral takes two pages and uses a variety of techniques (dialogue, inner thoughts, other character's perspective on them) and the reader gets a lifetime of codependency, guilt and failed expectations.  Quite impressive!

Millar can be manipulative, but she never does it dishonestly or with trickery.  But she does parse out information in such a way that if you are trying to solve the mystery, you can start asking yourself meta-questions, like why she puts a certain piece of info about a certain character in a certain spot.  It makes the reading of the book quite enjoyable, because while you are engrossed in this rich cast of characters and wanting to learn more about their dark secrets, you are also trying to pick apart Millar's structural choices. I guess this is what makes a book like this much more of a mystery than a crime book.  Beast in View is still my favourite book of hers (and I would argue a masterpiece of psychosis), but Banshee is still really quite good and probably my next favourite so far.  Happily, I have several more of her books on my on-deck shelf!

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