Reviewed by Harriet
Margaret Millar, born in Canada in 1915, lived for most of her life in California with her husband Ken, who wrote crime novels under the name Ross Macdonald. She died in 1994 but still has a loyal following, so it’s great that Pushkin Vertigo are reprinting some of her 27 novels. I reviewed her Vanish in an Instant for Shiny here, and now we have the latest reprint, first published in 1960. A Stranger in my Grave is a psychological thriller and a very enjoyable one.
The times of terror began, not in the middle of the night when the quiet and the darkness made terror seem a natural thing, but on a bright and noisy morning during the first week in February. The acacia trees, in such full bloom that they looked leafless, were shaking the night fog off their blossoms like shaggy dogs shaking off rain, and the eucalyptus fluttered and played coquette with hundreds of tiny grey birds, no bigger than thumbs, whose name Daisy did not know.
Daisy is having breakfast with her husband Jim. Married for eight years, they have no children – much to Daisy’s grief she has been told she can’t have any, so they are in process of arranging to adopt. Sitting at the breakfast table she is aware that some trouble is lurking at the back of her mind, and before too long it comes to the forefront and she has a full-blown panic attack. Jim is completely bemused and has no idea how to cope. Finally Daisy calms down, and admits she has had several of these attacks in recent weeks. It happens, she tells him, because she’s been severely frightened by a recurring dream. She dreams she’s out walking the dog and they come to a cemetery, where Daisy finds herself in front of a tombstone with her own name on it and her dates: ‘Born 1930, died December 2 1955’. Jim laughs. ‘I told you it was funny’, she says, ‘I’ve been dead four years’. She hasn’t been able to get the dream out of her head, and the desire to know what lies behind it has become an obsession. Something important must have happened to her on that date, and she feels sure that if she can discover what this was, she may be able to move on. Her bossy, controlling mother Mrs Fielding is no help and Jim just makes her say she will forget the whole thing, something she promises to do knowing it will be impossible.
Daisy feels oppressed by both her husband and her mother, who she thinks treat her like an idiot child. She’d love to turn for help to her much loved father, who unfortunately is not available – he’s an alcoholic and a drifter and though they correspond from time to time she has not seen him for years. Mrs Fielding loses no opportunity to abuse her ex-husband and to voice her fear that Daisy will turn out just like him, though she shows no sign of doing so. As for Jim, although he’s apparently devoted to Daisy, she has never forgotten an episode a few years earlier when he admitted to an affair with a Mexican woman, Juanita Garcia, whose child he was the father of. Neither of them will help Daisy to find out what the significance of the date on the tombstone may be, so in her desperation she seeks out a private detective to try to discover what she was doing on that day. And so she happens upon Steve Pinata who, despite the complete impossibility of the task, agrees to take it on. Dark, handsome and intelligent, Pinata is probably Mexican, but he has no idea of his parentage. He was a foundling, taken in by some nuns, and was given the surname because they thought it suited the way he looked. Together he and Daisy go to the local cemetery, where she is able to lead him to the exact location of the tombstone in her dream. And there, indeed, it is – the exact same stone, with the same date of death, but with a different name, one that means nothing to Daisy: ‘Carlos Theodore Camilla’. Pinata is able to find out something about the man from newspaper reports of the period, in which he is said to have been a suicide.
This is a novel with a shifting, complex plot. The focus moves from Daisy onto Pinata and then onto Daisy’s father Fielding, who has come to California to attempt to forge a relationship with his daughter. Unable to stay out of sleazy bars, he finds himself in the company of Juanita Garcia, the same woman with whom Daisy’s husband admitted having an affair. Pinata is on the same track too, while he and Daisy become increasingly close. But there will be many twists and turns before the various secrets are revealed and Daisy gets all her questions answered.
A Stranger in my Grave is a fascinating novel, true to the psychological torment of a young woman whose life is completely ruled by her overhearing mother and her dull, smothering husband. But it also provides an acute picture of life in 1960s America. Mrs Fielding is typical of middle-class white attitudes to Mexicans – she is horrified when she discovers that Daisy has employed Pinata to help her to investigate her past – unfortunately after nearly sixty years, you could doubtless find many people with the same prejudices today. But Mrs Fielding has secrets of her own to hide, which are only revealed in the denouement – the final chapter is crammed full of surprises. Margaret Millar writes exceptionally well and reading her is a delight. Excellent stuff.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Margaret Millar, A Stranger in my Grave (Pushkin Vertigo, 2019). 978-1782275732, 320pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)