Monday, March 13, 2017

The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar

Avon, 1974
originally published 1945
191 pp


It was like Christmas here a few days ago when I moved some stuff out of the closet space under the stairs and discovered boxes and boxes and boxes of old mass market paperback mystery novels that I'd forgotten I owned.  I opened one, and this book was staring at me -- so naturally, I had to read it.   Whoa! I had forgotten just how much I like Margaret Millar's work, but reading this novel brought it all back in a hurry.

The draw for me is that Millar doesn't present the usual crime-investigation-solution type plot. Her books, like all of my favorites in suspense/crime/mystery, look deep into the human mind.  As this article from a Canadian writer notes,
"she was far more concerned with the psychological ramifications of relationships, especially the toxicity that builds up and destroys marriages." 
Kathleen Sharp, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books notes another quality that keeps me glued to Millar's novels when she says that the author
"explored female characters as they battled the daily accretions of frustrated ambition and blocked power, often while trying to keep a grip on their own sanity."
While I won't go into detail as to how The Iron Gates embodies the psychology that both of these writers have described, and more,  it was a book I couldn't put down.   As a sidebar note, I do have to mention here that Sharp's description of The Iron Gates in that article as a "gothic novel about abortion" is incorrect, but the article itself is still worth reading.

from Women Crime Writers of the 1940s & 50s

The first thing worth mentioning here is that this book is structured in three parts that reflect the inner workings of the novel itself.   In Part One, "The Hunt," we meet Lucille Morrow, wife of physician Andrew Morrow, stepmother to Martin and Polly Morrow (both in their 20s) and sister-in-law to Edith.  Martin and Polly have never fully accepted her marriage to their father after the death of their mother Mildred some sixteen years earlier, which sets up major domestic tension especially between Lucille and Polly.   And while Lucille has been aware of the Morrow siblings' feelings about her over the years, she also realizes that in the long run, she has everything she wants, and as she says in her mind, "neither of you can take anything away from me."  There's only one thing really wrong as far as Lucille goes, and that is her jealousy toward the long-dead Mildred, but somehow she manages to keep her feelings to herself so as not to cause even more problems in the house.  Life, in short, is good and quite comfortable for Lucille, but things take a bizarre turn on the day after the arrival of Polly's fiancé Giles. While Edith, Polly and Giles are out shopping and Martin and Andrew are at work, the doorbell rings and a shabbily-dressed man hands one of the maids a parcel which is dutifully delivered to Lucille, resting upstairs. Shortly afterwards Andrew phones, and the maids notice that Lucille is nowhere to be found --  she's simply disappeared,  taking nothing with her but one of the maid's coats.  The police, of course, get involved, and the fact that it's the Morrow family draws the attention of Inspector Sands, who has been

"interested in the Morrow family for a long time...For about sixteen years." 

In Part Two, "The Fox," Lucille resurfaces in a place where
"She felt safe again. Behind her there was an iron gate and a hundred doors that locked with big key."
Sands wants to know what drove Lucille to take refuge in an asylum, and beyond that, why so many deaths have occurred since her disappearance.   It's not just Sands, either -- it's at this point that the reader also begins to wonder what's up with Lucille as we are made privy to the stream-of-consciousness musings reflecting her inner turmoil, and quite a different woman emerges miles apart from the cool, composed lady of the Morrow house from Part One.  The inspector's investigation leads him to, in Part Three "The Hounds,"  a shocker of a revelation that frankly, I didn't see coming, although I had great fun playing armchair detective in this one.

One of the excellent things about The Iron Gates is that Millar goes well beyond just the crimes in this novel, and she takes the time to psychologically flesh out most all of the players involved in her story -- the family, the side characters who will play a role in this story, the police, the other women in the asylum, and she does so without detracting one whit from the suspense.  She has an excellent sense of balance here -- while  there's a detective involved,  the focus stays on the characters so that The Iron Gates never becomes his story or hinges on his investigation, and  Millar never takes her eyes off of the psychological aspects of the characters for which she is so famous and which really sets her work apart from many suspense/crime writers of the same period, both male and female. Vintage crime readers ought not to miss this one, and anyone interested in the work of women crime writers might wish to consider this book, or for that matter, any novel written by Margaret Millar.  Don't plan on getting anything done once you start reading, because this book hooks you at the start and doesn't let up.

Recommended, absolutely!!!


  1. I only read the first few paragraphs because I plan to read this book in the next few months. Lucky you, finding all those paperbacks that you had forgotten about.

    1. The boxes were under other boxes marked "children's books" so I just assumed they were more children's books!

      I didn't give away much more than the cover blurb, so it's all good.

  2. Wow, what a wonderful review, Nancy, and this is one I might like to read---I like getting 'hooked,'too.

    1. It's really good. Then again, I enjoy books that are more focused on people than crimes.


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