Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: Beast in View

Margaret Millar
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This murder mystery takes place in Los Angeles in the 1950s. A wealthy, antisocial woman, Helen Clarvoe, starts getting weird, threatening phone calls from an old acquaintance. The calls scare her, so she hires her family’s financial advisor, Mr. Blackshear, to try to find out who is calling her and why. This leads Mr. Blackshear on a nice investigation in which he uncovers all sorts of interesting secrets about Helen’s past and the other members of her family, and during which one of the people he is investigating commits suicide and another is murdered.

What I liked about this book most of all was the author’s clear, straightforward style. It was a pretty complicated story, and Millar certainly doesn’t use a simple vocabulary, but her writing is easy to read. She is not deliberately obscure or pretentious or too obvious about trying to create suspense.

The book was also small, a tidy 156 pages. I think that Millar knew the story she wanted to tell and didn't feel that she needed to add a lot of unnecessary fluff around it. Which I appreciate.

I also enjoyed reading a mystery about post-war non-Hollywood society in Los Angeles by somebody with a very different take on it than Raymond Chandler.

One notable aspect of this book is that one of the key characters, Helen’s brother Douglas, is gay. I thought that his character was handled amazingly well, considering that this book was written in 1955. Douglas is a full, complex person, not a monster or a silly stereotype. And when his mother finds out and wants to take him to a clinic to get “cured,” he explains to her (and the reader) that this is a part of who he is and it isn’t anything that he can be cured of.

The back cover of the 2000 edition of this book advertises that it pulls the main characters into a world of “extortion, pornography, vengeance, and murder." I don't know if it's really all that exciting, but it was a good read, with a clear style and plot twists that kept me interested through to the end.

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