Margaret Millar - 'Beast in View' is very dark, almost noirish in tone, and probes deeply into the human psyche, in many ways much more realistically than many modern offerings
Margaret Millar, Beast in View, Bantam, 1956.
A split personality provides some shattering moments which begin with the phone call which terrifies drab Helen Clarvoe, hiding in a hotel room behind a wall of money, and continue with the attacks against her frivolous mother and her homosexual brother which leads to his suicide- and them to murder. A middle-aged friend of the family makes the right diagnosis- of the wrong person-in his attempt to end the victimization here. Unsparing, unnerving. - Kirkus Reviews
"...it was not an evening stroll, it was a chase, and she was the beast in view."Trying to break a little from the same old same old, I rummaged through my American crime bookshelf and pulled out this golden oldie. The publication date of this particular edition is 2002, but Beast in View originally came out in 1955. A year later it won the Edgar Award for best novel, up against Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (which, had I been a judge would have been my choice) and another book called The Case of the Talking Bug (also on my shelf, an old Doubleday Crime edition) by a husband and wife duo known as the Gordons. Millar's husband Kenneth was also no stranger to the crime-fiction scene -- his books continue to enjoy great popularity today under his pen name Ross Macdonald. Margaret Millar produced some 21 crime novels herself; her first one, Invisible Worm, was published in 1941. Beast in View is really more of a story of psychological suspense rather than a full-blown crime novel, set in Southern California of the1950s.
Helen Clarvoe, a young woman now 30, lives alone in a small hotel in Hollywood. Her mother, with whom she only rarely communicates by mail, lives six miles away with her brother Douglas. The hotel was the kind of place usually frequented by
"transients who stayed a night or two and moved on, minor executives and their wives conducting business with pleasure, salesmen with their sample cases, advertising men seeking new accounts, discreet ladies whose name were on file with the bellhops, and tourists in town to do the studios and see the television shows..."
all very much the opposite of Miss Clarvoe and "yet she chose to live in their midst, like a visitor from another planet." Helen lived there in a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, "behind her wall of money and the iron bars of her egotism," never going out to see much of the world, although because of prudent investments, she certainly could have. She receives a phone call one day and the woman at the other end of the line claimed to one of her friends, calling herself Evelyn Merrick. As Helen listens, she is convinced the caller is mad, although the caller disagrees -- telling Helen that in fact, she is the one who is mad, calling her a "little coward," accusing her of being jealous, and saying that she can see everything about Helen in her crystal ball. After questioning the switchboard operator about the incoming call, Helen gets in contact with her family's former investment counselor, Mr. Blackshear, who comes to the hotel to meet with her. She talks to him about the call, then shows him a money clip which was missing quite a huge sum of cash, and explains that she feared that her caller, Evelyn Merrick, may have been the one who stole it. She wants Blackshear to find Merrick. The only clue that the caller left in her conversation with Helen was that someday she planned to be "immortal," that "her body would be in every art museum in the country." Helen offers that hint to Blackshear as a place to start. As Blackshear sets off on his quest in private-investigator mode, he begins to hear much more about Evelyn Merrick -- whose forté, it seems, lies in discovering other people's deep-seated insecurities and using her knowledge to provoke her victims into a state of gut-wrenching despair, leaving a trail of desperation and devastation behind her as she goes. As Blackshear follows in Merrick's wake, the story develops through the points of view of different characters, Blackshear, who is starting to relish his role as PI, ultimately discovers a slowly-unfolding panorama of long-kept, long-buried secrets relevant to his investigations.
What comes out of this case goes far beyond the stuff of normal crime fare, as Millar takes her readers into middle-class Los Angeles of the 1950s, a place of societal constraints and, especially for this cast of characters, a number of unfulfilled expectations that have, over the years, remained dormant until finally germinating into crushing disappointments. Furthermore, while the central character, Helen Clarvoe, is a loner, Beast in View is a novel with a profound emphasis on human interactions and human failings at its core. While many reviews I've read have noted that the solution was easily grasped from the outset, I didn't figure it out until the end when all was revealed, and decided that I liked being artfully manipulated by the author throughout the entire story.
Don't let its age fool you. Beast in View is very dark, almost noirish in tone, and probes deeply into the human psyche, in many ways much more realistically than many modern offerings. This book will not be the last of Margaret Millar for me. Highly recommended, but beware -- there is little in the way of happiness to be found in the entire novel. - www.crimesegments.com/2012/10/beast-in-view-by-margaret-millar.html
In the vast criminal menagerie that Margaret Millar created over the course of her long career, there is a special place for the “woman in distress” plot. She wrote many different kinds of stories — and her novels were as likely to feature male protagonists as female — but one of the things that she did best was to put a young woman in a pressure cooker of a situation…and then keep cranking up the pressure.
Perhaps the best example of this is her 1955 novel Beast In View. It tells the story of Helen Clarvoe, a well-off “spinster” (at the ripe old age of 30), who is being stalked by an insane woman named Evelyn Merrick. Clarvoe asks her family lawyer, Paul Blackshear, to get rid of the troubled Ms. Merrick. Things do not go as planned.
Beast In View was, in some respects, Millar’s most successful novel. It got rave reviews, sold well, and won Millar the Edgar Award for Best Novel. As the years have gone on, it has remained perhaps Millar’s best known work. It was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the 60s and Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 80s. Writing about the book in 1984 for the New York Times, Anthony Boucher said, it 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.”
The novel is short (around 158 pages depending on the edition) and brisk. Millar sets things in motion with the first lines and propels the reader forward toward an unforgettable ending. Along the way, she writes with her usual spark and wit, especially when noting that both Helen and Blackshear are out of their element. Blackshear notes this problem at the outset:
Behind her wall of money, behind her iron bars, Miss Clarvoe was the maiden in distress, crying out reluctantly and awkwardly for help. Blackshear made a wry grimace as he pictured himself in the role of the equally reluctant rescuer, a tired, detached, balding knight in Harris Tweeds.
This is one of Millar’s trickiest novels, the kind of mystery with a twist ending that reconfigures the meaning of what has come before it. I’ve been debating whether or not to spoil the ending. And I’m going to spoil it. I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. Before I do, though, let me explain why. For one thing, the book is now 60 years old. Its twist ending has been revealed in numerous places on print and in the internet. In addition to that, the nature of the twist — while groundbreaking in 1955 — has been ripped off time and again by other books, movies, and television. In short, the secret is out. As a result, as we celebrate Millar’s centennial, I want to discuss this — her best known work — as a novel in full, in the kind of depth it deserves. If you don’t want to know the ending, then I heartily invite you to stop reading after this paragraph, go get the book, read it, and come back here for the rest.
Okay, so let’s discuss the ending. The fact that Evelyn turns out to be the alter ego of Helen is in some ways less important to the overall theme of the book than the fact that Evelyn ultimately succeeds in killing Helen. While Millar wrote her share of mysteries and potboilers, she also did some exceedingly dark work in noir. This book, though, is her darkest. Even in her book Do Evil in Return, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Here, the tunnel goes black and seals shut from behind. Rereading the book, one can see that the contest throughout is whether or not Helen or Evelyn will ultimately win out. Helen’s inability to reconcile the different aspects of her own personality — not just her repressed sensuality but her buried rage — gives more and more power to Evelyn. At the end, her penultimate words to Blackshear are “I’m not Helen! I am Evelyn. Say it. Say I’m Evelyn.” When Blackshear tries to talk her out of this, she shuts him down with a simple, “Be quiet. You lie.”
Throughout the book, we see Helen doing battle with herself, trying to tamp down the resentments she feels toward those around her. Lines that read as tossed off on first blush become pointed on rereading, like this exchange between Blackshear and Helen:
“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.”
In the end, when Helen succumbs to Evelyn, and Evelyn kills her dreaded enemy (keeping the promise that she makes in the first chapter), Millar ends on a disturbing image, albeit one that ends the book on a note of a horrifyingly achieved peace:
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.
It’s still shocking to see a book that ends not just with a moment of suicidal violence, but with a moment that uses suicide to resolve the central conflict of the plot. Helen and Evelyn, bound together in torment, are at last freed because Evelyn succeeds in killing them both.
The revelations at the end of Beast In View add up to more than just a gimmick or a twist. They deepen the story and darken its ultimate meaning. At first, Blackshear is amused to note that he’s being asked to help the “maiden in distress,” but he has no idea how deep that distress goes. He has no idea just how helpless he really is to stop what is coming. - Jake Hinkson
Beast in View begins with a telephone call. Someone calls Helen Clarvoe, identifying herself as an old friend, Evelyn Merrick -- a name and person Helen can't recall. She is vaguely threatening, and Helen is sufficiently unsettled to try to learn from the hotel operator who presumably put the call through where it might have come from, and then to ask Paul Blackshear, who handled her father's investments, and now handles hers, for help.
Blackshear, fifty and easing into retirement, feels obligated to listen to what Helen has to say, but he's reluctant to get involved. He does decide, however to look into the matter.
Thirty-year-old Helen's father recently died, leaving her a good amount of money -- while her mother, and her brother, Douglas, are struggling. Helen isn't close to her mother or brother -- not even making it to his wedding not too long ago (not that the marriage lasted: it was annulled). She lives in a second-rate Hollywood hotel, the Monica Hotel. She has no friends and doesn't get out much. "I've lost touch", she admits to Blackshear, and it applies to most everything.
Following the trail of this Evelyn -- without quite being able to catch up with her -- Blackshear learns she seems to have aspired to do some modeling -- and to have announced grandly and repeatedly: "I want to become immortal". He begins to believe that Helen may very well be in danger: Evelyn has a way of getting right at a person's worst fears, cutting to the quick in telling them truths they may have well hidden from themselves, "getting her satisfactions from other people's pain".
It turns out that Evelyn and Helen were, in fact, childhood friends, but that they drifted apart: they had little in common, with Evelyn: "the very opposite in temperament, full of fun and laughter". But Evelyn's history with the family didn't end back then, and just as Helen suffered a trauma with the recent loss of her father, so Evelyn's life, too, was shaken to the core not too long ago.
As Blackshear races to get to Evelyn before more harm comes to others events snowball. There is a suicide; there is a murder. And the secrets that are revealed make for a rather different picture than what originally seemed to be the case.
Helen is a miserable creature. In one of the darkest scenes in a dark book her father punishes the teen girl not with any actual punishment but rather simply the words:
Your punishment, Helen, is being you, and having to live with yourself.
Blackshear thinks she can still make something of herself, trying to be supportive in untangling the horrible situation Helen finds herself in, but it's a tall order.
Millar builds up some decent suspense as Blackshear grows more concerned about what he learns and what happens. If at first the story suggests an obvious explanation for what Helen is experiencing an unexpected twist reshuffles the cards. (In a brief Afterword Millar admits to her dismay at seeing a TV-version that used exactly the same plot she started out with (the Gore Vidal-scripted Studio One episode, Dark Possession), but her husband, Ross Macdonald suggested the added twist that makes something more of it.)
Beast in View is a grimly dark tale -- Helen and her family are all quite miserable. Millar has Blackshear believe in Helen's redemption, and even fall for her (a widower, he's also looking for something in his own life ...), which feels a bit forced in this very narrow time-frame. A few of the coïncidences are all too neat, too, but it's an effectively gripping and unsettling tale.
A bit compressed and fast, the writing is, however, also very sharp. Forced to serve a somewhat artificial plot here, Millar can't sustain it throughout -- but there's considerable talent on display here.
A good, fast, grim story of psychological terror and scars. - M.A.Orthofer