Monday, 29 October 2012

Penguin no. 1850: Taste of Fears
by Margaret Millar

     The smoke from his cigarette slid up his face. 'You used the phrase, humanly impossible. Practically nothing is that. A man can endure anything if he believes in ultimate justice, if he believes that somewhere dangling in space is justice and the wicked shall be punished and the good shall be rewarded. That is the working principle of the religion of the people I know. Revenge and reward.'
     He leaned forward. 'Think of it! Somewhere dangling in space justice, great impartial justice built like a monstrous man straddling the universe. A big fellow, a strong fellow, but still like us.'

Perhaps the blurb writer was inclined to hyperbolise, or perhaps he or she neglected to read the book, for it seemed to me that the description of Taste of Fears as '...a psychological thriller of almost agonizing suspense', was completely unreliable. There is certainly a psychological element to the story, as Margaret Millar's focus is on the thoughts and feelings of her characters, and we are given some insight into the disintegrating mind of one of them, with the rapid descent into mental instability triggered by a perhaps justifiable belief that she is in some peril. Lucille is terrified about something, and it is this fear which destabilises her, and has her seeking refuge in an asylum.

But there seemed very little suspense. Once you know of the characters' histories, there seemed only one possible explanation for all that had occurred in the past, and for all that is occurring in the present. It is a story about consequences, in this case of those brought about by an unsolved murder committed 15 years previously. But it also deals with the possibility that there may be no consequences at all, that people may be able to act in appalling ways for which they will never be held to account. It is this possibility which has one character feeling compelled to act. But such actions can never be completely disinterested, and it is suggested that they inevitably have consequences of their own.

Canadians Dr Andrew Morrow and his wife Lucille have both been married before and were both widowed. But while Lucille's first marriage had been an unhappy one, Andrew had loved his first wife and had been devastated by her premature and violent death. Mildred Morrow had been murdered late one winter evening in the park adjacent to their home, with the back of her head brutally sundered by an axe. The snow falling during the night had concealed any evidence which might have revealed the identity of her murderer, and the police had struggled to maintain any interest in the difficult case. Her death was assumed to be the unfortunate consequence of a bungled burglary, and in time Andrew recovered from his grief and married the young, attractive widow living next door, a close friend of his deceased wife, and the last person, other than the unknown murderer, to have seen Mildred alive.

But while the second marriage may have been reasonably successful, the resulting blended family wasn't. They simply seem to get by in an unhappy accord, with Andrew and Mildred's children never really accepting Lucille, and Lucille silently counting down the days until they both leave home, a day that is now approaching.

Perhaps an even more noticeable feature of the way they live, though, is an absence of personal space, with everyone seemingly answerable all the time for where they are and for what they are doing, with no one ever permitted to do anything unremarked. Partly this is caused by the presence within the household of the spinster aunt who finds a purpose in life by manufacturing crises she alone can solve, and also in nagging and criticising and complaining. And it means that when Lucille cannot be found in her room, there is no simple assumption that she may have gone out for awhile, perhaps even for a walk. Instead, the household immediately descends into chaos, and everyone assumes a catastrophe.

And in this instance their assumption proves correct. First there is the delivery of a mysterious package, then an absconded wife, and finally a series of deaths of individuals connected in some way with the Morrows. But Inspector Sands is investigating now, and he has no intention of giving up on the case as quickly as the police did 15 years before. The answer he uncovers is unsurprising, but the question of interest never really seemed to be in who was responsible for all the deaths. Instead it is in why this series of events is unfolding so many years after the first murder, and whether the person responsible will be able to live with the consequences of all they have brought about.


  1. Sounds fascinating! Thanks.

  2. I've only just begun to explore Millar, and was confused to see this title - but quickly came to realize that what Penguin calls Taste of Fears is known as The Iron Gates on my side of the ocean. Both are good titles and I do recommend the novel. Coincidentally, of the Millars I've read to date, my favourite is An Air that Kills, which Penguin chose to publish as The Soft Talkers. Why, I cannot say.

    Here's hoping you'll be covering more of her work. A neglected gem, I think.

    1. Brian,

      The Soft Talkers is a Penguin I don't yet own, and I couldn't find any other titles listed by her, so it may take me a while. I'm sure I have a few books by her husband, though, so I may try one of those soon.

      Millar was clearly living and writing on your side of the ocean, so I wonder what the true title of the novel was. Taste of fears I assume to be taken from Hamlet, and I thought it was an effective title.

  3. Karyn,
    Please do read Ross MacDonald, I can't recommend him highly enough. He is (imho) the heir to Chandler. Don't be put off if you've seen the film adaptations with Paul Newman as the private detective Harper (Archer in the books), the books have far more depth.
    Regards, Ian

  4. The cover is a classic of awfulness!

    1. Some time soon I'll review a few of the later 1960s-published crime Penguins and then you really will see some awful covers, far worse than this one.



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