The Listening Walls, by Margaret Millar

March 17, 2009 at 12:42 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

walls The Listening Walls begins with the death, in Mexico, of Wilma Wyatt – accident, suicide, something else? – and the subsequent disappearance of her friend and traveling companion Amy Kellogg.  The scene quickly shifts to the Bay Area, where Amy’s husband Rupert has been explaining his wife’s absence by claiming that she is taking an extended vacation in New York. Gill Brandon, Amy’s brother, is not having any of it. He proceeds to hire a private detective: “a  brash, bushy-haired little man” named Elmer Dodd. Meanwhile, Gill’s wife, the lofty and imperious Helene, harbors suspicions, as well as longings, of her own.  Time passes; Amy fails to appear. A poisonous atmosphere takes hold, and spreads.

The Listening Walls came out in 1959. Reading it is like peering into a time capsule. Women dress up to go shopping. They have servants to cater to their every need: “Breakfast, martinis, chocolate creams, tea, magazines, cigarettes–you pressed a button, and bingo, whatever you wanted, there it was.” Women of a certain class led a pampered, cosseted existence, yet at the same time their lives were circumscribed. Living in one of the most cosmopolitan regions in the country, they constantly fret about their reputations. A flight attendant (“stewardess” in the parlance of the times) is instantly fired when it’s discovered that she’s married. The prevailing attitude toward half the human race veers between a sort of condescending affection and outright contempt. Witness this casual disparagement carelessly tossed off by Gill Brandon: “‘Half the time women don’t know what they want. They have to be told, guided.'”

On the other hand, in this particualr instance, we must consider the source. This is how Millar introduces us to Gill:

“He was a short, stocky, vigorous man with a forceful manner of speaking that made even his most innocuous remark seem compelling, and his most far-fetched theory sound like self-evident truth. To heighten this effect he also used his hands when he talked, not in any dramatically loose European style, but severely, geometrically, to indicate an exact angle of thought, a precise degree of emotion. He liked to think of himself as mathematical and meticulous. He was neither.

As depicted by Millar, the America of the late 1950s was a place where appearances counted for everything – or almost:

“It was a street of conformity; where identical houses were painted at  the same time every spring, a place of rules where gardens, parenthood and the future were planned with equal care, and even if everything went wrong the master plan remained in effect–keep up appearances, clip the hedges, mow the lawn, so that no one will suspect that there’s a third mortgage and that Mother’s headaches are caused by martinis not migraine.

This kind of wry, deadpan shrewdness of observation is what I’ve been missing lately in American fiction (with the very notable exception of  the novels of Anne Tyler). I read The Listening Walls straight through, feeling hypnotized by the mystery at its heart. In a plot blessedly free of extraneous complications, the central conundrum becomes increasingly compelling as events unfold and characters  are forced to reveal their hidden selves. Millar’s style is engaging , her wit rapier-like but controlled. She may lack the tragic sense of life so poignantly bodied forth in the works of her husband, the  great Ross MacDonald, but she more than makes up for it by the irony and precision with which she exposes human foibles to the pitiless light of day.

3 Comments

  1. Martin Edwards said,

    Millar was a wonderful writer. My own favourite is A Stranger in my Grave – brilliant.

  2. frances wang said,

    With My Dog as My Co-Pilot: I read this and was ready to put my suitcase in the car, break out the map of Virginia, put my doggie on his leash and rev up the car for a trip. Traveling alone as a woman was ingrained into me as something not done. Frankly, I have come to realize that to get around one must just go. The idea of going with my dog, who is a dear friend and companion here at home, is just the answer I needed and did not know I needed. I think we will start with day trips and we will see what happens after that. I am a sucker for dog stories, animal stories, truth be told. I have read and enjoyed all of the James Herriott books. I look forward to Susan Conant’s doggie mysteries. These books make me feel good about the human-animal connection. It is a vital source of joy for me. So, yes, I confess, I love animal stories. Now I also like the idea of traveling with my dog and I know he will like it, too. His name is Bu.

    I will have to re-read The Listening Wall because I do not know what I think about it. I was glad I stuck it out to the end but found the style so different from what I am accustomed to that I felt the book shifted this way and that with me not knowing quite what was going on when the shifts happened. Maybe it is the fifty’s style writing. I do not know enough about writing from that era to comment. I’ve tracked down two other books by Millar, A Stranger In My Grave being one, so know I want to explore her writing more. We’ll have to see where she takes me.

  3. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] by Andrea Camilleri The Price of Malice by Archer Mayor Caravaggio’s Angel by Ruth Brandon The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar The Private Patient by P.D. James Blackout by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza Wycliffe […]

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