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.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.