Beast in View won the Edgar Award in 1955 and is listed at number 75 in the CWA top 100 list of crime novels. This Phoenix edition came out in 2011.
Helen Clarvoe is 30, friendless and unfriendly, odd and nervy. She lives in the Monica Hotel, a strange choice for a wealthy woman with its population of travelling salesmen and tourists. The story opens with a threatening phone call from Evelyn, an old friend whom Helen can’t seem to remember. The call, and the discovery of missing money, frighten her very badly.
Helen’s saviour is the closest thing she has to a friend. Blackshear is her stockbroker, a man in his 50s, a widower who is slowly retiring from his work. He finds a new lease of life in helping Helen, and soon she shifts in his perception from annoyance to damsel in distress. He delves into Evelyn’s world, which is entirely alien to him, with enthusiasm and perhaps even a slightly inappropriate enjoyment.
Millar has created a memorable cast of incidental characters. The experienced desk-clerk at the Monica Hotel to whom human beings mean no more than bees to a bee-keeper. Charm-school teacher Miss Hudson with her persimmon lips hair to match. Nola Rath the fame-obsessed photographic model. An artist’s wife so eager to show off her baby that it blinds her to danger.
This must have been a difficult book to write and get published in the 50s – it tackles issues which were still a long way from the mainstream at the time, although the reader does have to recalibrate to the time and place it was written. The treatment of gay characters dates the book, and the psychological elements come across as crude – but then this is an early psychological mystery, and this is an enjoyable read nonetheless. Millar is pretty skilled at leading the reader up the garden path. It’s fairly obvious what’s going on until all of a sudden it isn’t. Then, a little later, it isn’t again. If you like Patricia Highsmith (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ll like Beast in View. I haven’t read any more of her novels, but they come highly recommended by the excellent crimesquad.com.
The photographic front cover is very appopriate and must have delighted the picture researcher when they discovered it. The back cover likewise – although did they have push-button phones in the 50s?
Final destination: Back to the library.