Monday, February 29, 2016

BEAST IN VIEW by Margaret Millar

Wealthy, neurotic spinster Helen Clarvoe lives alone in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. She's begun to receive harassing phone calls from an Evelyn Merrick, phone calls that frighten her. She's estranged from her family since her father died, so she calls up Paul Blackshear, an investment banker who had dealings with her father, to find out what's going on.

Beast in View was first published in 1955 and won the Edgar award for Best Novel. It's easy to see why; this isn't a traditional mystery novel but a great, trendsetting  psychological suspense work. It takes us from the swank home of the Clarvoes to a pornographer's studio, a massage parlor, and elsewhere. Blackshear starts to fall for Helen, seeing her as someone who needs protection. Evelyn Merrick goes around, harassing people by telling the dirtiest secrets of those close to them, and two deaths occur before Blackshear finally tracks her down and discovers her devastating secret.

As fun reading as this is, there are some drawbacks. One is that the central concept is a bit hackneyed now and experienced readers will catch on quickly. Some of the psychology is a bit outdated; a gay character is handled in a rather odd manner, both cliched and somewhat sympathetic when you realize he's a seriously screwed-up person overall. But we're given looks into the heads of various characters, which makes for good reading. Millar knew human nature, that's for sure.

Millar (1915-1994) was a Canadian-born suspense writer who is criminally overlooked today. (Her husband, Kenneth Millar, wrote highly-regarded hard-boiled novels as Ross McDonald and is still in print. Shameful sexism, I say.) But her books are being rereleased in ebook formats and you can occasionally come across them in libraries and used book stores. BIV was filmed as an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" but little else of her work was filmed; a movie of another novel, The Iron Gates, was planned with Bette Davis in the lead, but Davis rejected the role as her character would be gone for the last third of the film, and the project died.

Beast in View is out there as an ebook and in used copies. Go find it, folks. This is cracking good reading.

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