Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fire Will Freeze - Margaret Millar

First published 1944; cover shown is the 1967 Signet Books (USA) paperback edition. Cover artist unknown. 158p.

Fire Will Freeze was Millar's fifth novel, written just four years after her first (The Invisible Worm). Even this early on in her career, her characterisation talents are obvious. And there was something else I hadn't encountered in Millar's work before this: black comedy, with some gruesomely funny moments.

Deep in the wilds of French Canada, Isobel Seton and eight others are being ferried by bus to a skiing lodge. In the midst of a snow storm, the driver stops and leaves the bus to check on a tyre chain. He doesn't return.

The passengers eventually decide that they must leave the bus and walk to safety, and, after struggling through the storm and being shot at by persons unknown, the motley gang of Isobel, a stripper, a poet and his benefactress, a would-be psychoanalyst and her father, two teenagers newly married, and Crawford, a gun-toting mysterious man in a fedora, take refuge in an isolated house. They decide to spend the night there and go for help in the morning.

What follows is possibly the longest night in fictional history, with the occupants of the house - an insane and homicidal old woman, and her hostile nurse, Floraine - causing chaos. Splitting up two to a room, Isobel finds herself sharing a bed with the stripper... and soon a recently killed cat. The shocked group believe the old woman slit the cat's throat, and she is locked in her room. But Isobel is still uneasy, and combs the house for signs of the bus driver. When she finds the driver's coat near the huge furnace in the cellar, she is certain he has been killed just like the cat.

When morning finally dawns, it brings more death, with the discovery of the nurse's frozen body in the snow outside:

Gracie clung to the window and whispered, "I don't feel so well. There's a - a foot - out there."

"It's Floraine," Miss Rudd said pleasantly. "What's left of her."

While some of the group seem oblivious to the undercurrents of suspicion flowing between the main characters of Isobel and Crawford, others see much more than Isobel or Crawford realise. When Isobel takes another trip down to the cellar and returns with a man she found on the steps, the end of this strange tale is almost in sight.

If I had to find fault with this novel, it would simply be that I was let down by the character of Crawford. Millar built him up as one very interesting man, only to turn around in the latter part of the book and flip all that upside down. There were similarities to Charity Blackstock's Dewey Death in that respect.

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