Review: A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE by Margaret Millar

This is my second foray into the work of this Canadian/American author for the Crimes Of The Century meme. The first was in May of this year for 1957’s AN AIR THAT KILLS.

astrangerinmygraveaudioIt’s difficult to know how to talk about A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE without giving away too much of what makes it an interesting story so I’ll give the briefest plot synopsis possible. Daisy Harker, seemingly well-married and without much to fret about in life, has had a dream. In it she happens upon her own gravestone with a date of death some four years prior to the book’s present day. No one in Daisy’s life – not her mother, not her husband, not her husband’s best friend – thinks there is much to be made of the dream but Daisy becomes consumed by it. When she encounters a private investigator she hires him to help reconstruct that day in her life and determine what significance it has.

I’m not sure I completely buy this story’s premise – which is essentially that Daisy has blocked out an entire day from her personal memory (my subconscious kicked in every now and then with ‘really, just the one day?’) – but even so I was captivated by Daisy’s story. Millar reveals that what you see on the surface – Daisy’s perfect life with her perfect husband – isn’t even close to the truth. And the peeling back of the layers of betrayal she has experienced at the hands of just about everyone who should have been looking out for her makes for compelling reading. Of course they all had their reasons. They were protecting Daisy or saving her from some imagined hideous fate. Or was it all just self-interest and prejudice?

This is only the second book of hers that I’ve read but in both Millar explores the subject of childlessness. I wonder if there was something personal in the subject for her (though she did have one daughter) or if it was just an interesting subject for someone so keenly observant of the psychology of women. Here she also explores the subject of parenting more widely. In fact in a way almost all of the threads of the story are about parenting in some way and I liked the way they juxtaposed the traditionally accepted notions of ‘good parenting’ with someone brought up without parents. Stevens Pinata is the private detective Daisy engages and as the book progresses we learn that he was an abandoned baby who has no real knowledge of his heritage. Yet in many ways he is the most morally sound character in the book and this felt like Millar was making a kind of ‘up yours’ statement to the establishment. Or maybe I’m reading too much into things but either way I liked this element of the story.

Pinata is also responsible for my favourite line of the book. It occurs when he and Daisy encounter the name Camilla which Daisy assumes to be based on the camellia flower but is dismayed to find out it actually means “a little bed”.

Daisy: Oh. It doesn’t sound so pretty when you know what it means.
Pinata: That’s true of a lot of things.

Indeed. Millar – via Pinata mostly in this novel – is adept at distilling truths such as this one.

In short I liked this book a lot. It’s not really very mysterious in the traditional sense but it is full of tension because we don’t know if Daisy will learn everything she needs to, nor how she and those around her will react if she does. It’s just as easy to imagine the poor woman being hauled off in a padded jacket as what actually happens. Although it is in many ways a product of its time – some of the attitudes to women and racial minorities are wince inducing today – the book also has something of a modern sensibility in the way it explores a very domestic environment in great depth.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Jennifer Bradshaw
Publisher This edition Audible Studios 2013, Original edition 1960
Length 9 hours 44 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

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5 Responses to Review: A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE by Margaret Millar

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I like Millar’s work, too Bernadette. And I think you have a well-taken point about her insights into the psychology of women. I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way, but I see what you mean. And she was really good at crafting the sort of mystery where the layers are slowly peeled back, and you see what’s really going on. Or do you? She was skilled at building suspense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patti Abbott says:

    Big fan of Millar. There are still a few I haven’t read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a long time since I read this, and I don’t remember much about it, but I know I liked it, and keep meaning to re-read…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. tracybham says:

    I read this one a long time ago, and at the time I found it a very tense read. I do plan to read it again some time. I gave not read An Air That Kills either. Of the nine books that I do have copies of I have only read 3 of them. So I have plenty of Margaret Millar books in my future.

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