Arbana, Michigan (a loose proxy for Ann Arbor), where Virginia Barkeley finds herself under suspicion for murder and where her mother comes to save her from that plight, is a cold, grim place, and far indeed from their home back in Southern California. Millar makes much of that geographical contrast, using it to evoke a quintessential Midwestern loneliness, a wide-open space of the mind where desperate acts ensue from a desperate need for connection. Did Virginia cheat on her busy doctor husband, and did she then take a knife to her lover in a drunken rage? Or did a mousy, death-sick loser named Earl Duane Loftus kill that man—for reasons no less obscure than his reasons for subsequently confessing to the crime? Or did the victim, a slick operator named Claude Margolis, arouse homicidal ire in some other haunted soul?
Each character contains his or her own lode of mystery, and even the most minor figure (a prison orderly with an amateur passion for pathology, an Italian landlord with a soft spot for kittens and for old women) provides a solid addition to the world that Millar construes. It’s a world at once casually realistic and horrifically claustrophobic, created in a style that foreshadows the work of Ruth Rendell—particularly the mordant, twist-laden tales of psychological suspense that Rendell writes under the name “Barbara Vine.”
Millar, in this marvel of dark domestic Americana, also proves herself to be a better writer than her husband, Kenneth Millar, who had recently begun to publish a series of private-eye novels (later much celebrated) under the name Ross Macdonald. In fact, she beat him at one aspect of his own game, issuing similes worthy of Raymond Chandler on almost every page—similes that slip organically into the flow of her narrative, even as they leave an eerie twang in the ear: “[H]e stood over her with melancholy patience like a hen brooding over an egg that has gone rotten in its shell.”