Thursday, April 30, 2015

Beast In ViewBeast In View by Margaret Millar
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very difficult review for me to write, perhaps the most difficult of the 300+ lame reviews I have produced so far. Margaret Millar's "Beast in View" received the "coveted" Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year in 1956, yet I do not like it at all, and had to work hard to finish reading it. There must be something wrong with me.

Helen Clarvoe, a well-off, young, but lonely woman receives a nasty phone call from one Evelyn Merrick, who predicts that bad things will happen to Helen. Helen calls Mr. Blackshear, the family lawyer who manages her money, and asks him to find Ms. Merrick and make sure that she stops harassing her. Obviously, things do not go as planned; Ms. Merrick continues to call various people and tell dreadful things about people close to them. There is a murder and another death, and the reader gradually learns about events from the past.

My first gripe is minor and pertains to basic plausibility. Why would anyone believe words of a relative stranger? Suppose someone calls my wife and tells her that I committed some vile acts. My wife would laugh it off. While she knows that I am foolish, clumsy, lazy, conceited, and ... (well, let's talk about it some other time), she knows that I am not vile. Words are just words, most everybody lies every day, why then confuse something that someone says with reality? Sure, words can hurt, but not in that simple way.

Further, I am unable to relate to people who are so self-centered that their inability to align their real persona with their self-image, the fact that they are not someone who they would like to be, is the greatest tragedy of their life. Yes, it is a somewhat common human trait, but to me utterly uninteresting. I would rather read about why life is often hell for well-adjusted and well-meaning people, forced to be around each other. True, Ms. Millar introduces a thread where someone suffers because of societal norms and forces (by the way, that thread shows how dated the novel is, how much these norms have changed in the 60 years since the novel was published), yet there is too precious little of it, and we have to read instead about people's struggles with their self-perceived inadequacies.

What I can stand the least is the over-expressive style, bordering on histrionics. While one of my favorite mystery writers, Karin Fossum, beautifully whispers about Big Things, Ms. Millar screams about them in a loud, theatrical voice. Another favorite writer of mine, Denise Mina, gives nuanced, subtle, utterly realistic treatment of ill-adjusted people's motives and behavior, while the conflicts of Ms. Millar's characters seem made-up and fake. It cannot be the age of the novel. Ms. Millar's husband, Ross Macdonald wrote deeply realistic novels about human condition at about the same time.

Finally, the denouement. I guessed what the resolution will be about mid-novel, which is not a complaint as I never care whether the ending is a surprise or not. Yet, to me the ending cheapens the novel, sort of like a magician explaining a simple trick after an enthralling performance. Well, let's just say I am too dense to appreciate the greatness of this novel.

One and a half stars.

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