book: The Devil Loves Me (1942) by Margaret Millar

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The third and last of Millar’s three Paul Prye detective novels and the first of her three Inspector Sands novels, this has an opening chapter of which Ellery Queen in his/their pomp would have been mighty proud . . . of which any GAD novelist would have been proud.

In Toronto, Prye and his true love Nora are getting married in a grand ceremony — cast of thousands, kind of thing. But then, just before the actual plighting, one of the bridesmaids, Nora’s cousin Jane Stevens, collapses of what proves to be atropine poisoning. The wedding ring has mysteriously disappeared from Prye’s pocket; in its place is a sinister note claiming responsibility for the murder.

Except it isn’t a murder, as things turn out. Jane pulls through, thanks in some part to an anonymous phone call to the hospital identifying her condition.

Back at Nora’s familial home, various pertinent parties hang around waiting for Toronto PD’s Inspector Sands to sort out the attempt on Jane’s life. But then there’s a murder — Jane’s controlling brother Duncan — and another, and another . . .

I don’t think any mystery novel could have completely followed through after that first chapter — it blew my socks off, and my socks ain’t easily blowable off — but The Devil Loves Me makes a damn’ good try. As Prye and Sands detectived their way through the increasingly complex plot, I was entirely bamboozled as to the identity of the multiple killer; when the truth was at last revealed, the solution seemed (for me at least) to come completely out of left field. Although Prye and Sands claim in the concluding pages to have deduced the truth, a cynic could say that the solution has been teased out rather by Jane’s cousin, hot divorcee Dinah.

In the first of the Paul Prye outings. The Invisible Worm, the central character was so rebarbative as to significantly hamper one’s enjoyment of the novel. (Millar toned Prye down a lot for the second in the series, The Weak-Eyed Bat, and has done so even more here.) A major reason why Prye seemed so objectionable in that first book was his habit, at every possible opportunity (and a few that were not so possible), of quoting fragments of Blake poetry at people. In this context, it’s interesting that, in The Devil Loves Me, when he does spout a couplet (and it’s Wordsworth, not Blake), another character responds with

“I had no idea you were fond of poetry, Paul.”

How things have changed!

The final stages of the novel seem to be pointing toward a different direction that Millar’s writing would soon take: a focus on the psychological/domestic thriller rather than the then-traditional whodunnit. I’ll discover over the next few days if this impression is illusory on my part. But here are the final few lines of The Devil Loves Me so you can judge for yourself:

There was fog again, a wall of fog built around the city, breaking the wind, muffling the gloomy wail of the foghorn from the lake.

As [Inspector] Sands walked, a damp leaf fluttered against his coat sleeve and clung to it. As if I were its last hope for life, Sands thought.

He jerked his arm, and the leaf fell drunkenly to the pavement and lay stained red with the blood of autumn and smudged with soot.

Indignity, Sands thought, the death of anything is an indignity,

He walked on, swinging his arms savagely through the fog.

Noirish, or what? I’m champing at the bit to read the first of Millar’s Inspector Sands novels!

I read The Devil Loves Me 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 and I could have done with fewer typos, but it’s a handsome volume nonetheless.

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12 thoughts on “book: The Devil Loves Me (1942) by Margaret Millar

  1. You’ve got me very curious about the more mature Paul Prye. Thank you for encouraging me to give him a second chance. The First Detectives has been elevated to number two spot on my night table.

  2. You have me interested in Paul Prye, also. And I did not know that Inspector Sands is in that novel.

    I have a copy of Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith: Vanish in an Instant; Wives and Lovers; Beast in View; An Air That Kills; The Listening Walls. But I don’t think I will be able to read from that volume due to the small print. I am holding on to it for the introduction by Tom Nolan.

    • I likewise balked at the size of the print initially, Tracy (because the lines have so many words in them, I was having difficulty absorbing the meaning), but I surprisingly soon found I was coping with it quite happily. My eyesight’s lousy, so I really hadn’t expected this to happen. Maybe it’s just Millar’s storytelling skill? 🙂

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