‘It was as if her loneliness had compelled her to listen; even words of evil were better than no words at all.’ Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Born in Kitchener, Ontario, and educated at the University of Toronto, where she majored in classics. Margaret Millar lived most of her adult life in Santa Barbara California; she was married to Kenneth Millar, better known by his pseudonym Ross MacDonald. The assumption is often made that her work was overshadowed by that of her husband, author of the renowned Lew Archer detective series. But Margaret Millar’s novels have long been esteemed in their own right by the cognoscenti, and recently her star has risen anew due to the inclusion of Beast in View in a recently published landmark anthology. This worthy endeavor by Library of America has been curated by Sarah Weinman, a distinguished scholar of crime fiction.
Sarah Weinman has a particular interest in bringing to the forefront women writers of mid-twentieth America who specialized in noir fiction and psychological suspense – or what is now coming to be known as ‘domestic suspense.’ Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s goes a long way toward advancing that cause. (Sarah Weinman has also edited the short story collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. )
A further word about Margaret Millar: her first truly memorable encounter with her future husband occurred in the University of Toronto Library, where she was in the process of reading Thucydides in the original Greek!
Beast in View opens thus:
The voice was quiet, smiling. “Is that Miss Clarvoe?”
“You know who this is?”
“I have a great many friends,” Miss Clarvoe lied.
In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation— this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie. Only her eyes refused to be convinced. Embarrassed, they blinked and glanced away.
“We haven’t seen each other for a long time,” the girl’s voice said. “But I’ve kept track of you, this way and that. I have a crystal ball.”
“I— beg your pardon?”
“A crystal ball that you look into the future with. I’ve got one. All my old friends pop up in it once in a while. Tonight it was you.”
“Me.” Helen Clarvoe turned back to the mirror. It was round, like a crystal ball, and her face popped up in it, an old friend, familiar but unloved; the mouth thin and tight as if there was nothing but a ridge of bone under the skin, the light brown hair clipped short like a man’s, revealing ears that always had a tinge of mauve as if they were forever cold, the lashes and brows so pale that the eyes themselves looked naked.
In this way, we make the acquaintance of Helen Clarvoe, a lonely, vulnerable young woman. She is not completely alone in the world: her mother Verna and brother Douglas live not far away. But she has as little to do with them as possible. In fact, she generally has very little to do with the world outside her hotel room. That is, until this strange phone call comes to disrupt her carefully ordered existence.
In her shrewd commentary on this novel, Laura Lippman points out that the reader should keep in mind the exact location of Helen Clarvoe’s telephone – an ‘instrument’ of the 1950s – beneath a mirror:
Page one, line one: a telephone rings. It is a stout, old-fashioned rotary phone. It has no Caller ID, no smartphone functions. You couldn’t use it as a GPS or even to Google “Margaret Millar Beast In View.” Helen Clarvoe, alone in her hotel residence, wouldn’t be able to carry it across the room. She has to stand where she is, staring into a mirror.
Among other issues, Beast in View deals with the phenomenon of what used to be called a split personality, these days more commonly referred to by mental health professionals as Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder. Frank, our discussion leader, is a practicing psychotherapist who has treated individuals afflicted with this condition. He described the way in which D.I.D. manifests itself: the change in the individual’s body language, the unexplained memory gaps, and other symptoms. When asked what the goal was in treated such a person, he said the therapist’s efforts went toward uniting the personalities into a single fully functional entity. D.I.D. is sometimes confused with schizophrenia; in fact, they are two very different illnesses. For further elucidation on this topic, see coverage provided by Web MD. (This diagnosis has not been without controversy. See “Multiple Personality–Mental Disorder, Myth, or Metaphor?” by Dr. Allen J. Francis. Frank reminded us that the field of mental health has been as subject to fads as other fields of inquiry. Just look at the dust-up that invariably occurs every time The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is revised and reissued.)
The 1950s were a time of intense interest in this phenomenon. Beast in View came out in 1956. Frank mentioned The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson, which came out in 1954. This novel had brought the subject of “split personality” to the forefront of public discourse. In 1957, two psychiatrists wrote about a case they had treated. Using a made-up name for their patient, they called their book The Three Faces of Eve. The film starring Joanne Woodward came out later the same year. I remember it well. Everyone I knew saw that movie; people talked about it incessantly. For Joanne Woodward, who up until then had been a relatively unknown bit player, it was the start of a brilliant career. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her riveting portrayal of Eve White/Eve Black/Jane.
In Beast in View, Millar also presents a homosexual character in an evenhanded, compassionate light. I was surprised by this enlightened portrayal, given the time period in which the novel’s action takes place. As I was reading, I felt increasingly certain that this character held the key to the novel’s unfolding events. Certainly he plays an important role. But that role is almost beside the point. I’m now thinking that his presence, which may have been disconcerting to some contemporary readers, was a deliberate distraction. It diverts attention from Helen Clarvoe herself. But the spotlight returns to her at the novel’s conclusion, in what proves to be a shattering revelation.
The question then became, who saw that shocker of an ending coming? Some did; some definitely didn’t. (I was in the latter camp. As I was approaching the story’s conclusion, I was exclaiming to myself, “What? What?”)
There are elements in Beast in View that date the narrative; among them, a modeling school/business that also served as a sort of charm school. But there is also some precise and powerful writing, especially as regards Helen Clarvoe. (Note: Paul Blackshear is a friend of the family who tries to help Helen and her mother Verna.)
The forehead was smooth, the mouth prim and self-contained, the skin paper-white, as if there was no blood left to bleed. Miss Clarvoe’s bleeding had been done, over the years, in silence, internally.
He hung up quickly. He didn’t like the sound of Miss Clarvoe’s gratitude spilling out of the telephone, harsh and discordant, like dimes spilling out of a slot machine. The jackpot of Miss Clarvoe’s emotions— thank you very much. What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive.
This hotel clerk is a very minor character; nevertheless, trouble was taken to bring him fully to life:
The desk clerk, whose name-plate identified him as G. O. Horner, was a thin, elderly man with protuberant eyes that gave him an expression of intense interest and curiosity. The expression was false. After thirty years in the business, people meant no more to him than individual bees do to a beekeeper. Their differences were lost in a welter of statistics, eradicated by sheer weight of numbers. They came and went; ate, drank, were happy, sad, thin, fat; stole towels and left behind toothbrushes, books, girdles, jewelry; burned holes in the furniture, slipped in bathtubs, jumped out of windows. They were all alike, swarming around the hive, and Mr. Horner wore a protective net of indifference over his head and shoulders.
The only thing that mattered was the prompt payment of bills.
In addition to his work as a physician in the mental health field, Frank is also an aspiring writer. We had an interesting discussion about how point of view functions in novels. In my opinion, the mishandling of this crucial element in fiction writing occurs all too frequently in contemporary works of “literary” fiction (as does inattention to structure).
Frank explained that frequent switches in point of view, especially in the midst of scene containing dialog, is disconcerting to the reader. One wishes to be inside the mind of a single character, and to view the action according to his or her mindset. (I hope I’ve got that right.)
I have the feeling that I’ve omitted quite a bit here. This was a wide ranging and extremely stimulating discussion. Addition and corrections are welcome.
Beast in View was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for an episode on his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The story is told very differently from the way Margaret Millar tells it – rather confusing, I thought. But I clapped my hands in delight when I first laid eyes on the actor who plays Paul Blackshear. It was Kevin McCarthy, who played the role of Dr. Miles Bennell in the original (1956) version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of my all time favorite films.