Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How Like An Angel - Margaret Millar

First published 1962; cover shown is the 1976 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition. Cover photo by Ray Massey.

This book was truly amazing: the story, the settings, the final chapters. I really enjoyed it.

Joe Quinn, ex-casino cop and P.I., hitches a ride with a friend after losing his final paycheck on the tables. The ride only gets him part way to San Felice, and he has no choice but to ask for food and a bed at a secretive religious community living in the Tower, a large building in the middle of the Californian countryside.

The inhabitants are not exactly welcoming, but he does make one friend: Sister Blessing of the Salvation. Before he leaves the next morning, she gives him $120 she has hidden from the Master and asks him to find a man called Patrick O'Gorman.

Quinn travels to nearby Chicote, not too sure that he won't just use the money for gambling. He checks for Patrick O'Gorman in the phone book: the name is there, and it looks like the $120 will be the easiest money he's ever made. But one quick phone call later and Quinn realises this will be a harder job than he thought: O'Gorman had disappeared, assumed murdered, five years earlier.

Quinn now has to find out what connection Sister Blessing has to O'Gorman, and what, if any, connection there is to a local woman arrested for embezzlement in the same month that O'Gorman disappeared. Then there's O'Gorman's widow, who first says her husband died in an accident, then changes her mind and calls it murder.

Like in Beast in View (reviewed earlier) Millar's strength lies in her focus on the psychological side of the crime in question. The final chapters - in which the previously unknown criminal reveals his story and makes a final journey to commit another murder - could not have been written better: I could hear the birds he loved so much, understand his desperation, and sense his final, hopeless struggle for sanity.

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