Orion, Crime Masterworks Series, 2002
"...it was not an evening stroll, it was a chase, and she was the beast in view."
Trying to break a little from the same old same old, I rummaged through my American crime bookshelf and pulled out this golden oldie. The publication date of this particular edition is 2002, but Beast in View originally came out in 1955. A year later it won the Edgar Award for best novel, up against Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (which, had I been a judge would have been my choice) and another book called The Case of the Talking Bug (also on my shelf, an old Doubleday Crime edition) by a husband and wife duo known as the Gordons. Millar's husband Kenneth was also no stranger to the crime-fiction scene -- his books continue to enjoy great popularity today under his pen name Ross Macdonald. Margaret Millar produced some 21 crime novels herself; her first one, Invisible Worm, was published in 1941. Beast in View is really more of a story of psychological suspense rather than a full-blown crime novel, set in Southern California of the1950s.
Helen Clarvoe, a young woman now 30, lives alone in a small hotel in Hollywood. Her mother, with whom she only rarely communicates by mail, lives six miles away with her brother Douglas. The hotel was the kind of place usually frequented by
"transients who stayed a night or two and moved on, minor executives and their wives conducting business with pleasure, salesmen with their sample cases, advertising men seeking new accounts, discreet ladies whose name were on file with the bellhops, and tourists in town to do the studios and see the television shows..."
all very much the opposite of Miss Clarvoe and "yet she chose to live in their midst, like a visitor from another planet." Helen lived there in a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, "behind her wall of money and the iron bars of her egotism," never going out to see much of the world, although because of prudent investments, she certainly could have. She receives a phone call one day and the woman at the other end of the line claimed to one of her friends, calling herself Evelyn Merrick. As Helen listens, she is convinced the caller is mad, although the caller disagrees -- telling Helen that in fact, she is the one who is mad, calling her a "little coward," accusing her of being jealous, and saying that she can see everything about Helen in her crystal ball. After questioning the switchboard operator about the incoming call, Helen gets in contact with her family's former investment counselor, Mr. Blackshear, who comes to the hotel to meet with her. She talks to him about the call, then shows him a money clip which was missing quite a huge sum of cash, and explains that she feared that her caller, Evelyn Merrick, may have been the one who stole it. She wants Blackshear to find Merrick. The only clue that the caller left in her conversation with Helen was that someday she planned to be "immortal," that "her body would be in every art museum in the country." Helen offers that hint to Blackshear as a place to start. As Blackshear sets off on his quest in private-investigator mode, he begins to hear much more about Evelyn Merrick -- whose forté, it seems, lies in discovering other people's deep-seated insecurities and using her knowledge to provoke her victims into a state of gut-wrenching despair, leaving a trail of desperation and devastation behind her as she goes. As Blackshear follows in Merrick's wake, the story develops through the points of view of different characters, Blackshear, who is starting to relish his role as PI, ultimately discovers a slowly-unfolding panorama of long-kept, long-buried secrets relevant to his investigations.
What comes out of this case goes far beyond the stuff of normal crime fare, as Millar takes her readers into middle-class Los Angeles of the 1950s, a place of societal constraints and, especially for this cast of characters, a number of unfulfilled expectations that have, over the years, remained dormant until finally germinating into crushing disappointments. Furthermore, while the central character, Helen Clarvoe, is a loner, Beast in View is a novel with a profound emphasis on human interactions and human failings at its core. While many reviews I've read have noted that the solution was easily grasped from the outset, I didn't figure it out until the end when all was revealed, and decided that I liked being artfully manipulated by the author throughout the entire story.
Don't let its age fool you. Beast in View is very dark, almost noirish in tone, and probes deeply into the human psyche, in many ways much more realistically than many modern offerings. This book will not be the last of Margaret Millar for me. Highly recommended, but beware -- there is little in the way of happiness to be found in the entire novel.
*part of October's focus on American authors.