An Air that Kills
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.
"I'm sick of my hair like this," she said. "I think I'll become a blonde. An interesting psychic blonde like Thelma."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.
"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."
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.