Review: AN AIR THAT KILLS by Margaret Millar

AnAirThatKillsMillarAudioRon 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.

As is often the case with my Crimes of the Century reading 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 which I share here as a nod to my blogging friend over at Clothes in Books

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator George Newbern
Publisher This edition Audible Inc 2012, Original edition 1957
ASIN B00B7OS29O
Length 6 hours 25 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

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14 Responses to Review: AN AIR THAT KILLS by Margaret Millar

  1. Millar’s work really does generally fall into the category of psychological suspense, Bernadette; but I hadn’t thought about it as akin to the ‘domestic suspense’ we think of today. And yet, as you say, it is. I think she does do a solid job of building up that suspense, but I know what you mean about her depiction of women. It’s a little better in some of her other things, but still…

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  2. Patti Abbott says:

    I love Margaret Millar but this probably isn’t her best. I would categorize it as domestic suspense and I think I am very influenced by her along with Elizabeth Xansay Holding and a few other mid-century writers. I grew up reading them. It is sad to think that even bright women had these limiting ideas about women. Although you can see it peeled away in some of Holding’s work. (The Blank Wall, for instance)

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    • I’ll keep an eye out for another of her books then Patti…and will also try and track down Holding’s books – sounds like another author I should try.

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  3. I read the book long ago and remember nothing, but I LOVE that pink taffeta dress outfit! Definitely tipped me to a reread.

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  4. tracybham says:

    Psychological suspense / domestic suspense are not my preferred reading, but I have enjoyed the two Margaret Millar books I have read so far. One was published in the early 40s, the other was from the 70s, so both from different periods in her writing. I think I like them because they feel different, and I like the settings. One I read was set in Canada, one was in California / Mexico.

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  5. Rebecca says:

    I read a bunch of Millars in the last year or so, but I haven’t read this one so far. I tend to remember the oddball characters the most, so I’m sad to hear that the characters weren’t so great in this one. I tend to like her stuff more than the Gone Girl/ Girl on the Train ripoffs that are everywhere right now.

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  6. John says:

    Since everyone seems to be agreeing with you at face value I’ll offer the dissenting opinion because I’ve actually read the book.

    For me this is one of Millar’s better books and rather subversive. I thought Thelma was intended to show how motherhood can be dangerously obsessive. In the end I thought she was a sympathetic portrait of a deeply troubled woman. You’re laying it on a bit thick in your criticism of the “depiction of women” and I think you’re missing the point. Millar is showing what’s wrong with immersing oneself in dreams of a perfect family and desiring too deeply. In a way the book is very prescient for the kind of parents we have now and a warning about the obsession of wanting to be a parent for all the wrong reasons. It helps to have an understand her own personal turmoil with what happened to her own child. The year she was writing this book her socially maladjusted and very troubled 16 year old daughter left home after drinking, took her father’s car and had a horrible accident hitting three boys, killing one of them. For years afterward Millar was haunted by failure and guilt as a mother.

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    • Thanks for stopping by John…always good to get dissenting opinions.

      I am notorious for not wanting to know anything about authors – if it’s not in the book I am really not interested – but the downside of this is sometimes missing out on interesting motivations for stories/characters taking a particular turn such as what you’ve described here about Millar. That is interesting…but I’m still going to go out of my way to avoid learning about authors’ personal lives/opinions etc

      On the issue of whether or not I was too harsh about Thelma I’m prepared to concede some ground…the notion that the portrayal was about obsession – any obsession really – and how problematic that could be was not something I had considered. Though it wasn’t just Thelma that bothered me when I was thinking about the book’s general depiction of women…the ex-wife was a tired character trope too, and there’s an (unnecessary) passage involving a spinster teacher (her words) that grated too. Possibly…probably…all very normal for the time but that doesn’t make it any more palatable.

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  7. Brian Busby says:

    An Air That Kills is my favourite Millar, perhaps in part because it was the one that really got me hooked on her work. (The first I read was Fire Will Freeze, which all these years later remains the one novel I don’t think much of… or about.)

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    • tracybham says:

      I am sorry to hear that you did not care for Fire will Freeze. I have that one (unread) and I love the cover (woman in fur coat with rifle). I will still give it a try, of course.

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      • Brian Busby says:

        I know that cover, Tracy! The very same edition I own. It may not surprise you to know that the scene depicted doesn’t feature in the novel. But then there is no floating body in An Air That Kills either.

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  8. icewineanne says:

    Thanks for the interesting review. I don’t recall reading any MM in the past, think i’ll add her to my TBR list 😀

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  9. Terry Hickman says:

    First-time commenter here; I enjoy browsing all you wonderful mystery bloggers’ sites and adding to my already miles-long TBR list. Anyway – I was born in 1950 in Middle America and I can tell you, that was the 50s. Horribly stifling for women. Just awful. And they did it to each other, too. Of course there were free-thinkers but knowledge of another way to live didn’t seep down to ordinary people much. Also remember 1957 was only about 12 years after WWII and all those male GIs were still trying to adjust to post-war conditions – which included their wimmenfolk many of whom had had “real” jobs while the men were away to war. It was deemed necessary for the post-war society to grind women back down into their “traditional” status ASAP to accommodate the returning soldiers’ and sailors’ need to be The Man of The House.

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