Wall of Eyes
New York: Dell, 1946
Wall of Eyes is one of Margaret Millar's Canadian novels, but which I mean that it's one of a handful she set in her home and native land. It centres on Toronto's Heath family, a clan that cover copy describes as "decadent" – the word that might first come to mind today is "dysfunctional".
Isabel willed the house and every cent of her money to the youngest, Kelsey, a cold and clever girl who is in every way her mother's daughter. Two years earlier, in Isabel's final months, Kelsey lost her sight as the result of a car accident. John was riding in a rumble seat with a cheap date who died at the scene. Kelsey's fiancé, Philip, a middling pianist, survived to play another day.
Philip lives at the Heath residence, but don't get the wrong idea; Kelsey hates her fiancé. As her mother did her father, she's turned her betrothed into an emotional cripple. Oh, every once in awhile Phillip will say he's had enough, but Kelsey knows he's too feeble to ever leave.
Wall of Eyes was Millar's fourth novel and first great commercial success. It's typical of her work: domestic drama and dialogue captivate; psychology, which she studied at the University of Toronto, comes into play. More than one-third of the novel passes before we encounter a body; in this case, poor Kelsey with a wide, deep gash to her breast. "A powerful hand had held the knife, a hand driven by hate or rage."
Kelsey's death brings Detective-Inspector Sands to the Heath residence. A loner, with "no wife or child or friend", he is one of Millar's greatest characters. Sands reappears in what might be her finest novel, The Iron Gates (1945), and the short story "The Couple Next Door" (1954). With him comes glimpses of Toronto's very tame wartime nightclubs, venues that are otherwise almost absent in Canadian literature.
Well... they were tame.
It's always a challenge to write about Margaret Millar – there will be twists and one hates to spoil. So, I'll leave off with a bold pronouncement: This woman, who has never been published in Canada, ranks amongst the very finest Canadian novelists of her generation.
Those familiar with her work know that I'm merely stating the obvious.
Trivia: The Heath residence depicted on Dell's mapback is less grand than the house found in the text. The 1966 Lancer edition is perhaps a bit closer to what the author had envisioned.
The address of the residence, "1020 St. Clair Ave.", exists... at least 1020 St. Clair Ave West does. And we know that it's West because one character heading north on Avenue Road turns left to get there. In real life, the address isn't nearly so grand:
There is no 1020 St Clair Ave East.
Copies of the most recent reissue, International Polygonics' 1986 edition, can be had for a buck – others from Lancer and Avon go for not much more. For my money, the Dell edition, with cover by Gerald Gregg, is nicest. Very Good and better copies begin at two dollars and go all the way up to thirty.
Wall of Eyes has been translated, but less than the typical Millar title. Completists will be on the hunt for the Spanish (Muro de ojos, 1986), French (Des yeux plein la tote, 1990), German (Blinde Augen sehen mehr, 1990) and Japanese (眼の壁, 1998) editions.
Margaret Millar is the featured author this week at blogger Patti Abbott's "Friday's Forgotten Books". Lot's of good stuff by regular contributors, including review of The Iron Gates by Patti herself.