Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar

About halfway through A Stranger in My Grave, it occurred to me that I was reading a Cornell Woolrich pastiche, written by an exceptionally talented writer. The dreamily purple writing style, the heavy psychological gimmickry, the reliance on coincidence and the importance of dreams… This is pure Woolrich. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did start to wonder to what extent Millar was conscious of the fact that she was re-writing Rendezvous in Black.

Was that incendiary? It’s been awhile since I read Rendezvous in Black, but it seems that there’s something awfully similar about the two books.

At her best, Millar was one of the top crime and mystery writers of the mid-20th century. Beast in View hasn’t aged all that well (I mean, the twist hasn't aged well; it's a bit hoary and you can see it coming from the first chapter) but it is a very well-written and compulsively readable book. Then there’s How Like an Angel, which has one of the absolute best twists in all of mystery fiction, that’s presented so well that it almost overshadows all of the other great qualities of the book.

From those two classics, however, there’s a bit of drop-off to Fire Will Freeze, a very fun Agatha Christie-esque trapped-in-a-snowstorm tale. Then The Listening Walls, with it’s relatively ho-hum twist.. and so on. For all her talents (and they were many and varied), Millar could get stuck in ruts. Maybe my opinion of her is colored by the order in which I’ve read her books. How Like an Angel was first, and it was like a revelation. Then Beast in View which was less a revelation but still fun. None of her other books have measured up to either of those.

A Stranger in My Grave begins with a very troubled, morose young woman called Daisy Harker. She smiles purely out of habit and sees herself as vulnerable and flighty. She’s suffering from a recurring nightmare in which she’s chasing her dog through a cemetery when she comes upon a grave with her name, the date of her birth (November 13, 1930) and her death (December 2, 1955). The date of her birth is correct, but the death date can’t be, since it was four years before. Daisy is determined to reconstruct that particular day of her life, to see if it has any significance for her. It must be important. At first she thinks it might have some connection to the date when she learned from a “specialist in Los Angeles” that she couldn’t have children, but that was “[f]our years ago, not five. And the trip to see the specialist must have taken place in the spring, not in December, because the hills had been green” (chapter 2).

She gets a call from Stan Fielding, her Lord Byron-quoting, hard-traveling, ne’er-do-well father, in San Felice up from Los Angeles. A conversation with a waitress led to a fight with the waitress’s husband, landing him in jail. He’s calling her to repay the bail bondsman/private detective who’s paid his fine, Stevens Pinata. She agrees, looking forward to seeing her father again for the first time in years. Unfortunately, Fielding is a cowardly bum and flees before Daisy’s arrival. She pays the fine, then hires Pinata to help her reconstruct December 2, 1955.

Pinata is apparently of Hispanic descent, although his heritage is a mystery even to himself. He was left abandoned in an orphanage, and the name Stevens Pinata was given to him by one of the Sisters. (“Pinata” because some of the children were playing with a piñata at the time she selected the name.) Pinata is ambivalent about his background, and this ambivalence permeates his attitudes toward other people. From chapter 7:

In his early years Pinata had been extremely conscious of the fact that he didn’t know his own racial original and couldn’t identify with any particular racial group. Now, in his maturity, this lack of group identification had the effect of making him tolerant of every race. He was able to think of men as his brothers because some of them might very well be his brothers, for all he knew. The name Pinata, which enabled him to mix freely with the Spanish-Americans and the Mexicans who made up a large part of the city, was not his.

Pinata believes that Daisy’s attempt to reconstruct The Day is part of a subconscious desire to to destroy her own life. Nevertheless, he eventually accedes to her wishes and they start tracking down what happened on that day in general and, more specific, what happened to her. Going through a newspaper’s archives they discover that that particular date was full of events, large and small. When she hears that a woman called Juanita Garcia was “given probation on charges of neglecting her five children by locking them in her apartment while she visited several west-side taverns” (chapter 7) something clicks in her mind. But that leads to frustration—why should she know any Juanita Garcia? Pinata thinks her defensiveness might be a mechanism to hide the truth from herself, he also recalls that Juanita was the name of the waitress that Fielding was speaking to right before the brawl that got him arrested.

Juanita the waitress is in some ways Daisy’s opposite: Daisy is barren, Juanita is prolific. Juanita is flighty, but she’s also loud and brusque and prone to violent outbursts. At one point in the book Fielding even says that Juanita reminds him of Daisy:

He wanted to help the girl because in a disturbing way she reminded him of Daisy. It was as if some perverse fate had singled them both out to be victims, Daisy and Juanita, who had never met and perhaps never would, although they had so much in common. He felt sorry for them. (Chapter 17)

Eventually, Pinata and Daisy uncover a complicated plot involving an illegitimate child, secret payments, perverse deception, infidelity, extreme pathological guilt, and murder. The story unwinds with Millar’s alternately beautiful, clever, and gimcrack prose. For instance, when Daisy tells her husband about her recurring nightmare, Millar gives us this third-person internal monologue:

It was not the dream that disturbed him, it was the reality it suggested: some day Daisy would die, and there would be a genuine tombstone in that very cemetery with her name on it. Oh God, Daisy, don't die. “You look very much alive to me,” he said, but the words, meant to be light and airy, came out like feathers turned to stone, and dropped heavily on the table. He picked them up and tried again. “In fact, you look pretty as a picture, to coin a phrase.”

That passage manages to be both gimmicky and insightful. There are a lot of such passages throughout the book. Here’s the opening of chapter 14:

Granada was a street of small frame houses built so closely together that they seemed to be leaning on each other for moral and physical and economic support against the pressures from the white side of town. The pomegranate trees, for which the street was named, were fruitless now, but at Christmas time the gaudy orange balls of fruit hung from the branches looking quite unreasonable, as if they had not grown there at all but had been strung up to decorate the street for the holiday season.

This is roughly the point in the book where the racial undertone becomes the theme of the book, integral to Millar’s twist. While Pinata is ambivalent about his racial identity, Millar suggests that it’s a major component of one's humanity—and that you can’t fight racial fate. It’s this aspect of the twist that elevates this particular book to the mid-tier of Millar mysteries (by which I mean it’s well above average and well worth reading), and I wonder what modern audiences would make of this ending. I have a feeling it would inspire a lot of think pieces.

A Stranger in My Grave is available for the kindle right now.

Here’s another take on the book at Pretty Sinister Books that’s also worth checking out.
Spanish book cover source.

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