A Stranger in my Grave (1960) by Margaret Millar

Today’s review concerns a young married couple, whose superficial marital harmony begins to disintegrate one morning when Daisy Harker tells her husband about a dream she has had, a dream so powerful it has almost seized her with terror. She is on a dog walk when she comes across the local cemetery, in which she finds her name on one of the grave stones, with the death date marked as 2nd December 1955, four years in the past. She is so convinced that something bad must have happened on this day that she even discusses it not only with her husband’s friend who is a lawyer, but also the bail bondsman who she meets when she has to pay for her estranged father’s fine. This bondsman is also a private detective and she decides to hire him to find out what happened that day. Of course this decision sets her down a difficult path, which brings up a lot of painful truths about all those closest to her, as well as revealing a darker side to American society.

Overall Thoughts

This book has a very intricate plot, yet I’ve tried to not say too much, as it is the sort of story where knowing too much might ruin it. I would also say this is a very powerful story, as it has as much to say about marriage, gender roles and race relations, as it does about telling the reader a story. Suffice to say the picture Millar presents of all three is a fairly negative and damning one. It’s not for nothing that when Daisy hears her mother tell her that she shouldn’t upset her husband over trivial matters because ‘he’s terribly wrapped up in her,’ we’re told that: ‘the words didn’t conjure up the picture they were intended to. All Daisy could see was a double mummy, two people long dead, wrapped together in a winding sheet.’ Equally from the very first page of the tale we know that Daisy’s marriage is based on a lot of pretence:

‘The smile meant nothing. It was one of habit. She put it on in the morning along with her lipstick and removed it at night when she washed her face. Jim liked this smile of Daisy’s. To him it indicated that she was a happy woman, and that he, as her husband, deserved a major portion of the praise for making and keeping her that way.’

She even says later on in the story that ‘any good marriage involves a certain amount of play-acting.’ Within this relationship dynamic, Daisy is treated in quite an infantile way at times, though more so when dealing with her mother. Again this is something she recognises saying that ‘Jim and my mother treat me like a child and I frequently respond like one because it’s easier that way, it doesn’t upset their image of me. My self-image is quite different.’ Yet having got to the end of the story I think she does have some child-like tendencies, which she conveniently likes to ignore. In particular characters who are outsiders to this trio pick up on Daisy’s tendency to avoid awkward questions and the detective she hires to investigate her weird dream, initially thinks to himself that she is a spoilt dissatisfied wife who intends to figuratively blow up and destroy her current way of life, a thought which is not too far from the truth by the end of the book.

In some ways Daisy is a character you are naturally meant to be sympathetic towards, but on reflection I think Millar doesn’t polarise the reader sympathies in that obvious way. My own sympathies definitely wandered around in the middle, as at times Daisy did come across as rather pig headed and stubborn, as well as having a habit of starting things and not finishing them, coming up with fictional excuses for why she discontinued them. Ironically the one thing she sees to the end is this investigation.

There will now be a brief spoiler moment…

Right so this section is definitely for people who have read the book, as I have two sort of queries/comments to make. Two things which I wasn’t wholly convinced by were:

  1. How much Daisy had genuinely repressed/forgotten about her husband’s supposed infidelities? Did she just pretend she had forgotten so the truth could come out in the open?
  2. Did anyone else buy the sudden relationship which forms between Pinata and Daisy? It all seemed rather rushed at the end, coming out of nowhere, or did I just miss earlier signs of it happening?

Normal service resumed…

I think on the whole this is a book I would recommend. It fits into the very broad category of suspense fiction, but not in the domestic section, if that makes sense. It’s interesting to see how Daisy’s vague anxieties become consolidated in hard fact and the end solution is unexpected, clever and well-crafted, dovetailing with all of the characters’ events, past and present, concluding with a nice sting in its tail. The characterisation is also maturely achieved, with characters not fitting into neat boxes or stereotypes and for those interested in 1950s America, it presents an interesting and complicated depiction.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Historical Crime

See also:

John at Pretty Sinister and Bev at My Reader’s Block have also reviewed this novel.

12 comments

      • No one asked for my opinion but I’ll give it nevertheless. :p

        Beast in View is a great book, that fully deserved its Edgar, but it relies on a twist that was new at the time but has now been done to death, especially after it was mainstreamed by one famous Hitchcock movie. It’s a must-read to be sure, but not a priority one if you want to get a taste of Millar at her trickiest.

        Regarding the first point you raise in the spoilers section, I have to say I wasn’t wholly convinced either, probably because unlike the Millars I don’t believe in psychoanalysis – the Freudian explanation of the dream I’ve always found as the one weak spot in an otherwise beautifully constructed plot.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I’ve heard good things about Margaret Millar, but the impression I get is that she writes in the vein of suspense/ thriller, rather than mystery. And if I venture into that territory, there is still Ethel Lina White to in the queue before Margaret Millar.

    By the way, it seems like a fourth novel by June Wright has been released, merging psychological suspense with country house mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

      • No the TBR pile is not that bad really. Around 16ish books. Hopefully track down a copy, though not having a kindle may cause me difficulties as not seeing paperback copies available on Amazon.

        Like

    • Absolutely incorrect. Millar writes some of the best plotted fair play mysteries as well as suspense. All of her books have been reprinted in omnibus editions by a US publisher. Her early books in the 1940s to about 1955 are almost exclusively straight whodunits. Even some of her later books are traditional mysteries but done in an original way that eschews the usual formulaic Q&A style mystery.

      Like

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