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An air that kills by Margaret Millar

An air that kills (original 1957; edition 1957)

by Margaret Millar

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1063165,751 (3.64)4
Title:An air that kills
Authors:Margaret Millar
Info:New York, Random House [1957]
Collections:Owned in an anthology, Your library
Tags:Collected Millar, Canadian, Mystery

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An Air That Kills by Margaret Millar (1957)



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Ron Galloway is a wealthy Canadian businessman who plans a weekend getaway at his lodge with friends but never arrives. The friends – Ralph, Harry, Joe and Bill – eventually raise the alarm about Ron’s absence but it is some time before he is found. In the interim secrets held by various people in the small circle of friends are slowly revealed.

Margaret Millar is a new author for me and I had virtually no expectations at the outset which is a delightful way to start any reading experience. I don’t know if the book is representative of her work or not but AN AIR THAT KILLS (published in the UK as THE SOFT TALKERS which actually has more meaning than I can ascribe to the original title) is a combination of psychological study and what today would be called domestic suspense. For about the first half of the book I was totally engrossed but did find my interest waning and my annoyance at the depiction of women growing somewhere around the half way point.

There’s never really much doubt that something is up with Ron even before he disappears as there’s a bit of portentous foreshadowing at the outset but the suspense comes from not knowing whether he has disappeared or even died of his own accord. Or had some help. There are plenty of candidates for the latter scenario including Esther, his second wife who is concerned he may be having an affair (just as he did with her when married to his first wife). I found it almost impossible to develop an image of Ron Galloway but Esther is very vivid thanks to her introduction

He was packing a duffel bag when his wife Esther came into his bedroom. She was going out for dinner and she had on a new pink taffeta dress trimmed with seed pearls and topped by a white mink stole.

The woman she accuses him of having an affair with is Thelma, the wife of his best friend Harry Bream. So there’s two more candidates. Then there’s his ex-wife Dorothy who claims to be a bed-ridden invalid and has cut of all contact with him since their divorce who receives a mysterious phone call on the evening of Ron’s disappearance. Or perhaps one of Ron’s other friends has a reason we don’t know of yet…Even when we start to learn that some of the people in Ron’s circle are not what they seem Millar manages to keep the reader guessing.

The book does a great job of introducing all the players and making the reader suspect them all. It does however get bogged down in details or irrelevancies a few times though I can’t cite examples without giving away more of the plot than is my want. The thing that bugged me more though was the depiction of women. It’s 1957 so I would have liked to see a female writer thinking a little more of her gender than them being universally obsessed with getting their man and/or having a baby. Of course it’s reasonable that a character be so obsessed, it just would have been nice if not every female character was depicted that way or pitied for their unmarried/childless state.

Overall then I liked but did not love AN AIR THAT KILLS. Millar’s writing and plotting is very clever, with the dialogue in particular hitting all the right notes. The character study element of the book is less evenly successful, at least for me, though the depiction of a group of friends slowly splintering apart is a good one even if some of the individual depictions are less compelling. I certainly enjoyed the book enough to seek out more examples of Millar’s work.
  bsquaredinoz | May 9, 2016 |
Margaret Millar (1915-1994) was married to Kenneth Millar, better known as crime fiction author Ross MacDonald, but despite having an Edgar Award and over 25 novels to her credit (with some critics saying she was the better writer of the two), she never gained the same popularity as her husband. The Millars made a good writing team, such as the times Margaret helped her husband with dialogue. "I did teach him to write better dialogue so that everybody didn't sound like him. In the first two books, all of the characters talked like Ken! I don't even know anybody who talks like Ken. And I told him he had to listen...And we went around to a lot of places: pawn shops, low bars...And he realized how different people talk." Apparently, Kenneth also once said that the best lines usually resulted from the many arguments the couple had.

The Soft Talkers is the U.K. title for Margaret Millar's novel from 1957, originally released in the U.S. as An Air That Kills. It follows the seemingly perfect married couple, Harry and Thelma Bream. Harry's best friend Ron Galloway invites his pals to his lakeside hunting lodge for the weekend, but then fails to show up. The worried friends call Galloway's house and speak to his wife, Esther, to find out what's keeping him, but the wife tells them Galloway left a long time ago. Then Thelma drops the bombshell on friend-caught-in the-middle Ralph Turee that she is pregnant with Ron's child. The investigation grows cold, and it isn't until much time has passed, when Ron is found dead buckled into his submerged convertible, that the even colder, twisted truth comes to light.

Millar's attention to dialogue is evident, part of the meticulous detail she gives to building her characters. Although she admittedly wasn't a fan of action-driven plots, her meticulous weaving of plot, clues and misdirection are all in fine form here, as is her zingy prose ("He had a sensation that he and Harry were stationary and the night was moving past them swiftly, turbulent with secrets. To the right the bay was visible in the reflection of a half moon. The waves nudged each other and winked slyly and whispered new secrets.")

Although it's a shame Millar isn't as well known as MacDonald, it's nice to see that a couple of her novels have been reissued recently by Stark House Press. Maybe new readers can discover why Anthony Boucher said of her writing, "Devilishly devious trick-plotting given substance by acute and terrifying psychological insight." ( )
  BVLawson | May 9, 2014 |
Margaret Millar was without question a talented writer of mystery and suspense novels. Wife of Kenneth Millar (better known as Ross MacDonald), some say she exceeded her husband in writing ability, if not in fame among the general public.

AN AIR THAT KILLS makes great reading, too. Millar had a way with dialogue—her characters could be pathetic, sarcastic, annoying or droll and she had an eye for detail and an ear for the spoken word that just nailed each of them.

And Millar could set you up like no one else. Her stories had a way of leading you down a primrose path, only to leave you staring at a trash heap, realizing she really had you going all along. And the clues to where you ended up were all hiding in plain sight, in retrospect. These things are all true, if you aren’t already familiar with her work.

Entire review available at http://thebookgrrl.blogspot.com/2008/06/something-in-air-that-kills.html ( )
  infogirl2k | Nov 29, 2008 |
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US & Canada title: An Air That Kills, UK title: The Soft Talkers
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