The second of Margaret Millar’s early trio of novels about consulting psychologist and amateur detective Paul Prye, and in my opinion a huge improvement over the first, The Invisible Worm. Gone are Prye’s most irritating characteristics, notably including his propensity for quoting scraps of William Blake’s poetry at every conceivable moment. This time around the man has flesh and blood, a personality rather than a collection of caricatured traits, and an actual, real-live libido.
Prye is vacationing in a small lakeside community somewhere in Ontario when the local teen floozy gets herself murdered. Most if not quite all of the locals had some sort of motive for bumping the girl off — aside from her roundness of heel, she was one of those people who think offensiveness to the point of violence is a character strength. Again, most if not all of the locals are in one sense or another eccentrics, the exception in both instances being artist Nora Shane, who’ll soon form a quipping affection with Prye — an affection that’ll, sure nuff, quickly develop into Something More.
There’ll be another murder soon enough, and then a suspicious death, before Prye and Inspector White bring the guilty party to justice.
The novel’s not flawless. The mental crackup of the villain in the denouement seems to me to be hammily implausible. The book’s psychological expositions in general seem pretty dated to me, although, since I know next to nothing about the psychological sciences, you should take this comment with a pinch of salt. Also dated, perhaps, is the dialogue of a Chinese butler, Wang — I say “perhaps” because it seems to me Millar’s making it plain Wang’s about the most intelligent character in the book and his orotundity of “oriental” phrasing is him parodying (and taking advantage of) the preconceptions of most of the whites around him.
Some of Prye’s ratiocination seems to me to be reaching in the dark a bit — just because X could have happened doesn’t mean it actually did — and his psychological profiling of the baddie could easily have focused on the wrong suspect (this was probably deliberate misdirection on Millar’s part), but I was having so much fun that for once I didn’t really care about such pettifoggery.
I read this novel as part of the fairly recently published omnibus The First Detectives, the opening volume of a hugely ambitious project from Soho Press, reprinting the entirety of Millar’s work in a matching set of six omnibuses and a memoir. The print’s kind of small but it’s a handsome volume nonetheless.