Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar - Domestic Thrills and Murder

I read most of the Ross MacDonald Lew Archer novels when I was a kid, and in the back of the Bantam editions the "About the Author" page noted MacDonald was "... Kenneth Millar in private life." Those sections also mentioned that  his wife, Margaret Millar, was also a mystery writer. I kept an eye peeled for her work as well, but in the book stores and news stands I frequented, nary a Margaret Millar title showed up. (I've mentioned before those days before the interwebs when you were at the mercy of paperback spinners and used book stores  to find books.)

Happily I ran across an edition of A Stranger in My Grave (1960) a couple of years back, and I was reminded of that when her name kept coming up in relation to Gillian Flynn's brilliant page turner Gone Girl. 

Grave certainly feels a little like a literary cousin of Gone Girl. It's a domestic thriller that revolves around an interesting quandary from Daisy Harker, a young wife, who in 1959 or so dreams of a tombstone with her name on it, and a death date four years earlier. Dec. 2, 1955.

Someone, Daisy reckons, must have done her psychic harm on that date:

"...No interpretation is necessary. It's all quite clear. On Dec. 2, 1955, something happened to me that was so terrible it caused my death. I was psychically murdered."

Her husband Jim would rather she leave that notion alone. So would her mother, who's supported by Jim's generosity and thus has a vested interest in the couple's domestic bliss.

Daisy's determined however, and when her deadbeat father, Stan Fielding, calls for help in paying off a bail bondsman, she sees an avenue to find answers. His bail bondsman, Steve Pinata, has detective skills as well.

He agrees to reconstruct that relevant Dec. 2, and it soon becomes clear Daisy's buried a few things deep in her memory. She recalls snow-capped mountains but not the reason she left the clinic where she worked that year, and something's up with Jim and his lawyer.

Her dad Stan Fielding is up to something as well, hitching back into town to look into the world of a waitress named Juanita. She's volatile and may be connected to the man really buried in the grave Daisy dreamed about.

Swirling pieces converge and begin to make more and more sense as the pages turn.

A Stranger In My Grave is not so much a novel of detection as a tale of mystery and murder that allows events to unfold once the trigger of memory is pulled.

On the  journey, Daisy moves outside the protective parameters of Jim and her mother who have controlling agendas. The truths are twisted and startling as they are revealed.

I suppose the memory loss is a conceit that the reader is expected to accept a little too easily, and there are a few other abrupt emotional developments for characters, but ultimately Stranger offers a compelling study of family, deception, dark deeds and a domestic era that's at times appalling yet also familiar.


Charles Gramlich said...

You know, I didn't even realize his real name was Millar. Talk about not knowing my Ross McDonald.

Sidney said...

I think he changed it so that their work wouldn't be confused. I think she published first actually. He used John Ross MacDonald at one point and then dropped the John.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...