Revisiting Classics: Margaret Millar’s “Beast In View” Is A Sharp-Edged Masterpiece
J.B. Stevens takes a closer look at the classic Margaret Millar’s mystery novel “Beast in View” that became 1956 Best Novel Edgar award winner.
“…it was not an evening stroll but a chase, and she was the beast in view.”
Margaret Millar, Beast in View
If you follow my reviews, and I am sure you do, you realize certain truths. I’m a fan of novellas, shorter format novels, and limited points of view. Recently, I realized this preference limited my reading. I adjusted accordingly, taking in The Goldfinch by Dona Tartt. While billed as literary fiction, and winning the requisite awards, The Goldfinch is actually a very long crime novel.
At the story’s core, it is about a terrorist attack, leading to art theft, which leads to drug dealing, driving insurance fraud, resulting in murder. The Goldfinch is 775 pages of first-person high-brow crime. It is lovely prose and a great book. However, it is overlong for my taste.
Post-Goldfinch, I found a salve to treat my length-fried brain: Beast in View by Margaret Millar. Millar was the 1983 Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award winner.
Beast in View is a sharp-edged, lean, masterpiece. The story was published in 1955 and won the Best Novel Edgar Award in 1956. It is approximately 200 pages long, depending on the edition.
Beast in View is set-up as a standard PI investigation, focusing on a stalker in 1950’s Los Angeles, but it is so much more.
It features a tight plot and limited points of view. The book is included on numerous “100 Best” lists, and deserves the praise. It was twice adapted for Alfred Hitchcock’s television productions. Anthony Boucher said the volume was “written with such complete realization of every character that the most bitter antagonist of mystery fiction may be forced to acknowledge it as a work of art.”
Beast in View is set-up as a standard PI investigation, focusing on a stalker in 1950’s Los Angeles, but it is so much more. In the opening we learn our stalking victim is a Miss Helen Clarvoe, a thirty year old shut-in living in a hotel. Helen described by the author:
“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 dark 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 and afraid.”
Beast in View is a sharp-edged, lean, masterpiece.
Helen lives off of an inheritance from her deceased father and, per Millar: “behind her wall of money and the iron bars of her egotism”. Helen is high-strung, off-putting, and formal to the point of unapproachability. Here is a passage where Helen describes her self-view to our investigator, Paul Blackshear:
“You have a low opinion of yourself, Helen.”
“I wasn’t born with it.”
“Where did you get it?”
“The story,” she said, “is too long to tell, and too dull to listen to.”
Evelyn Merrick is Helen’s former best friend, but the two have drifted apart and lost contact. Evelyn married Helen’s brother. However, the marriage was annulled due to the brother’s concealed homosexuality and the resulting lack of marital consummation. Later in her personal journey, Evelyn hopes, through artistic photography, to be made “immortal” and be featured in art museums worldwide.
Evelyn starts harassing Helen telephonically. We shift to Evelyn’s POV. She “punishes” anyone and everyone that does her wrong, mostly through destructive and manipulative phone calls.
Helen does not have many people she trusts so she reaches out to Paul Blackshear, her former (now retired) investment advisor. Helen utilizes every means available to shield herself from Evelyn, but is unsuccessful. Eventually, Evelyn murders the photographer through whom she sought immortality. She intoxicates Helen, dumps Helen in a house of prostitution, and causes all to suffer.
At the climax we learn (SPOILER) Helen has multiple personality dmisorder. The real Evelyn was involved in none of this, it was all Helen. Helen’s spinster tendencies and childhood emotional abuse caused a personality split. Helen’s jealousy of Evelyn’s free-spirted nature led to the psychological event. When confronted with the truth Helen kills herself. About the suicide the author writes:
“She pressed the knife into the soft hollow of her throat. She felt no pain, only a little surprise at how pretty the blood looked, like bright and endless ribbons that would never again be tied.”
I didn’t see the twist, or suicide, coming.
Beast In View was outstanding. I believe, if the novel was re-tiled The Girl on the Phone and a strong romantic sub-plot was added, Beast in View would be a historical-crime-fiction best seller this year. It featured an un-reliable female narrator, a non-professional investigator, noir-ish secrets, and deep family drama.
There are heavy doses of classism, sexual-orientation related struggles, and marital secrets. The prose is outstanding. Millar predicted crime-fiction’s go-to tropes of the new-millennium, and touched upon each. Millar did all this in a fast, efficient, and entertaining way. This is a great book.
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