Monday, March 25, 2013

Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man

Daisy Harker ought to be grateful for the kind of life she is leading. Her husband is attentive and loving and he even has a good relationship with his mother-in-law, who lives nearby. By all accounts, Daisy should be basking in glory, having attained the American Dream. Her life couldn’t possibly get any better. But Daisy happens to be in a Margaret Millar novel, and she’s about to discover that her life has many secrets completely unknown to her. This is Millar’s A Stranger in My Grave.

It all starts with a nightmare. In this nightmare, Daisy discovers that she is dead. While walking her dog, she came across her own headstone in the cemetery, giving her date of death in 1955. But why should that be? Daisy is very much alive, and cannot recall anything special about the day in question. Her husband tells her to forget about it, and her mother does the same. But then Daisy’s estranged father gives her a call. He asks her to pay a man named Steve Pinata, who has just bailed him out of prison.

Daisy obeys, but her father gets cold feet and runs away from Pinata’s office, not wanting his daughter to see him in his current state. When Daisy arrives, she finds out that Pinata does investigatory work as well, and so she asks him to investigate her life and find her “missing day”. Eventually, Pinata discovers that Daisy’s grave is real, but the name on the headstone is different. What is this “stranger” doing in Daisy’s grave, and what is the connection between them? Well, you’ll have to read the novel to find out.

A Stranger in My Grave is one of Margaret Millar’s finest triumphs. Here you will find a collection of realistic characters who think, feel, hope, love, and all the rest of it. These people feel real, from their emotions to their dialogue, and that is thanks to Millar’s supreme writing talent.

Some of the major themes of the novel are about origins and parenting. Steve Pinata is a man with no background – he was abandoned at an orphanage and does not know who his parents were. He doesn’t even know what race he belongs to and as a result he isn’t racist—if he were, he might very well attack his own race in the process. This leaves him feeling like an outsider, a cold, dispassionate observer. Yet over the course of the book, the façade slowly crumbles as he becomes more and more involved with Daisy’s problem, and it becomes a highly personal mission by the end. (I can also report a small miracle: although Pinata was raised by priests and nuns, there was no sex abuse involved. No, really!)

Parenting is also what leads to the whole situation in the first place, with Daisy being smothered by her mother’s domineering personality. Her mother isn’t evil, she just wants what is best for Daisy. And according to her, what’s best for Daisy is a solid marriage. Daisy has that, so why question it and put her entire lifestyle at stake? In this respect, Mrs. Harker mirrors another mother in this novel, whose daughter Juanita is a dark reflection of Daisy, having no stabilising presence in her life and being constantly in trouble with the law.

I’m touching very superficially on these themes because, well, if I went in depth about them that would spoil the novel, and that would be a shame. This is an excellent twist ending, with Millar saving her final surprise for the very last line of the novel, a feat she attempted at least one other time in the brilliant How Like An Angel. Unfortunately… I solved it. Again. I have no idea what tipped me off, but I began suspecting, midway through, that the ending would involve [something]. And as time went on this image sharpened more and more and as it turned out my guess was correct. I think this twist ending will fool most people, I just have the darndest luck, somehow being able to consistently outguess Millar when she’s at the top of her game.

Overall, A Stranger in My Grave is a brilliant book that absolutely must be read by any self-respecting mystery fan. No praise of mine could possibly do the book justice. It is a tour-de-force in every way. Plotting, characters, themes… all are at their finest, and the surprise in the book’s very last line will probably surprise most readers. If you’re unfamiliar with Millar, this is an excellent starting point.

11 comments:

  1. I share your admiration for this wonderful, and wonderfully clever, book. And it gave me the inspiration for a sub-plot in one of my own novels too. She really was a terrific writer.

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    1. Martin, thanks for giving this insight into your own writing process! I'll have to see if I can spot the novel in question when I get around to reading it. :)

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  2. Her masterpiece, I think, because it's her best novel. I, too, figured out the surprise of the final chapter. But the solution doesn't really matter. The book as a whole and all of its intriguing characters are far more interesting than the mystery aspect.

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    1. Although I agree that the characters are excellent and therefore the book would have been terrific even without that final twist, that twist gives you an even better appreciation for Millar's talent. She was able to juggle so many elements and have it come out so well!

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  3. I must be the only one who didn't like it. I thought the writing was weak -- especially how she flits around from one person's head (perspective) to another, within chapters. Possibly that affected my appreciation of the plot cleverness.

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    1. While I can see that POV-switching could be problematic for some readers, I think it's very well handled. I was also intrigued by the various characters and liked seeing things from everyone's POV.

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    2. I like different POV too, but done from scene to scene, not flitting into one character's head for a brief paragraph then back out again to someone else's. That's bad writing, and it marred my enjoyment of this book considerably. It puzzles me why her recent reviewers praise the quality of her writing. I think it's just so-so, in this book at least ('Ask For Me Tomorrow' was better, but I read it in vintage paperback so maybe my critical standards weren't tuned so high!).

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  4. I'm with you Patrick - right up there with HOW LIKE AN ANGEL.

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    1. Although I must confess I preferred HOW LIKE AN ANGEL a little bit more over this one, this is a personal preference and it's not a huge difference in terms of enjoyability between the two.

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  5. I read this many years ago, and want to re-read it. Thanks for the great review and a reminder to find a copy. That one with a skull on the cover is right up my alley.

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    1. I personally prefer the first cover I've shown, which is from the wonderful IPL editions. They always had such great covers.

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