01 February 2012

Margaret Millar and the Air Up North

An Air that Kills
Margaret Millar
New York: Random House, 1957

We Canadians shouldn't beat ourselves up too much about Margaret Millar. Yes, we don't study her work in school; true, our  publishers ignore her work; but the Americans aren't paying much attention either. There was a time when Mrs Millar was celebrated in the United States, her adopted country. Her books sold well and won considerable critical praise; The Beast in View was awarded the 1956 Edgar for Best Novel. In 1965, this Kitchener native was Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year and later received the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Today, eighteen years after her death, An Air that Kills is one of only two of Millar novels in print down south; one half of a bind-up from Stark House Press of Eureka, California.

An Air that Kills is one of the few novels that Millar set in Canada. It opens with a seemingly trivial conversation between husband and wife. The former, Ron Galloway is preparing to leave his Toronto home for a weekend of fishing with his buddies on Georgian Bay. Meanwhile, wife Esther rustles around the room in a pink taffeta dress.
   "I'm sick of my hair like this," she said. "I think I'll become a blonde. An interesting psychic blonde like Thelma."
   "You're psychic enough. And I don't like phoney blondes."
   "What about natural ones like Thelma?"
   "I like Thelma alright," he said obstinately. "She's my best friend's wife. I have to."
   "Just all right?"
   "For Pete's sake, Esther, she's a fattish little hausfrau with some of her marbles missing. Even your imagination can't build her up into a femme fatale."
   "I guess not."
   "When are you going to get over these crazy suspicions?"
   "Dorothy..." She swallowed as she spoke the name, so that he wasn't sure until she repeated it. "Dorothy had no suspicions."
We will learn that Dorothy is Ron's first wife, just as we will discover that Esther's suspicions are justified. Thelma Bream is pregnant with Ron's child, an unfortunate situation of which he learns on his way north. Best friend Harry Bream awaits at the lodge, as do second tier friends Bill Winslow, Joe Hepburn and Ralph Turnee, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. A flurry of phone calls follow when Ron fails to show. Seemingly inconsequential events come together – a dog is struck, a Mennonite girl discovers a driving cap – leading to the discovery of Ron and his Cadillac convertible at the bottom of a small lake just outside Meaford. A suicide note arrives by post a few days later.

It often seems that there's no real mystery in this mystery novel, rather a whole lot of domestic drama. Esther struggles in adapting to dual roles of grieving widow and betrayed wife, while the Breams battle and a baby is born. Harry clings, Thelma rejects and things become increasingly unpleasant. Though it's not expressed in so many words, the author having a subtle touch, the second tier friends breath a collective sigh of relief when Harry is transferred to the United States. Thelma, who has spent much of her life pining for warmer climes, ends up in southern California.

It doesn't end there, of course. It never does.

Trivia: While An Air that Kills has never been published in Canada, foreign editions abound. Random House, Bantam, Lancer and International Polygonics have handled the novel in the United States. In Britain, as The Soft Talkers, it has been published by Gollancz, Penguin, Chivers and Allison & Busby (no relation). Then there have been the translations: French (Un air qui tue), Spanish (Un aire mortal), Catalan (Un aire sue mata), German (Die Süßholzraspler), Dutch (De mooipraters), Danish (Stakkels Harry), Norwegian (Treer gjester venter vert), Finish (Tappava ilma) and Japanese (殺す風).

Object: A very attractive hardcover bound in scarlet cloth. The dust jacket, designed by science fiction illustrator Richard Powers, was adapted for the French first edition.

Access: Though uncommon, Very Good copies of the first edition begin at US$30. No copies of The Soft Talkers, the 1957 Gollancz first British edition, are currently listed for sale online. Various editions are held by Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, the Vancouver Public Library and seven of our universities.

The Stark House edition, with very fine Introduction by Tom Nolan, is not sold in Canada.


  1. Love Margaret Millar and she gets mentioned now and then on Fridays. I think some of her books rank with the best books in the genre. And she could write beautiful prose.

  2. Enjoyed the piece. Millar was the Agatha Christie of the "psychological suspense" novel, meaning that she had this impressive capacity to pull the rug out from under her readers. Her books to me fall under that category of "page-turners." One simply has to continue to find out what the twist will be. I am rather amazed most of her books are out of print.

  3. Agreed. The Margaret Millar novels I've read rank very high indeed. As far as I'm concerned, she's the finest mystery writer to come out of Canada. What often impresses is her use of dialogue. Here she sometimes reveals, but in subtle ways. Her conversations are natural, yet so very amusing. As readers we almost feel guilty for eavesdropping on intimate, titillating talk.

  4. Interesting review. I enjoyed this book, though I do prefer Beast in View, How Like an Angel and A Stranger in My Grave. She was a terrific, and very subtle, writer.