The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The mystery of the missing wife…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amy Kellogg and her friend Wilma are on holiday in Mexico City but it’s turning out to be a fraught time. Wilma, always moody and overbearing, is behaving even worse than usual following her second divorce. She’s drinking to excess and arguing with Amy on the slightest provocation. Then, following a drinking session, Wilma dies in a fall from the hotel balcony. Her depressed and emotional state leads the authorities to rule it as a suicide. Amy’s husband, Rupert, rushes to his shocked wife’s side, but when he returns home to San Francisco a week later, he returns alone. Amy, he tells her family, needed time to herself and has gone off to New York. But Amy’s brother Gill doesn’t believe his adored little sister would have gone off without telling him herself, and as time passes with no word from her, his suspicions grow…

Well, this is a little gem! Told in the third person, Millar lets us glimpse inside the heads of all the characters in turn but only giving us enough to tantalise our suspicions. We know that Rupert isn’t telling all he knows but we don’t know what he’s hiding. Is he a wife murderer as Gill suspects? If so, why would he have killed the woman he apparently loved? Gill suspects the age-old story of another woman and has his suspicions of who that woman might be. But if Rupert hasn’t killed her, where is Amy? It’s entirely out of character for her to have gone off on her own, this woman who has always seemed so dependant on others and so meekly subservient to the stronger characters she is surrounded by – her brother, her husband, Wilma. Increasingly desperate, Gill turns to a private detective, Elmer Dodd, and we follow him as he tries to find the truth.

The plotting is great, full of little twists that kept me puzzling over what had happened until the very last page. It’s more of a psychological mystery than a whodunit – the clues are all in the personalities and the things they do that seem out of character. The characterisation is brilliant – done with a light touch but no less astute for that. There’s Rupert’s secretary, nursing a crush for Rupert so secret she’s not even fully aware of it herself. Gill’s wife, long tired of Gill’s almost obsessively over-protective love for his little sister, is trying hard not to be glad that Amy has gone and is fighting against her instinctive hope that she never returns. The maid in the hotel in Mexico, she who listens through the walls of the title, might be a little stereotyped, but her greed and petty criminality are believable, her contempt for the rich Americans who stay in the hotel adds a good deal of humour, and her superstitions are used to give an air of real unease to some parts of the story. Elmer Dodd is excellent too. He’s a man who wants to know the truth but he’s not ruthless about it. He has sympathy for the weaknesses of human nature, and has a kind of warmth that makes people trust him.

Margaret Millar

This was my introduction to Margaret Millar after having seen her praised by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, and I’m very glad to have met her. A darkly twisted story, tightly plotted and lifted by some affectionately humorous character portraits and observations of society, not a word is wasted as Millar leads the reader through a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt. Great fun, and highly recommended – another author to add to my growing list of vintage crime favourites!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

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30 thoughts on “The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

  1. I do like the way Millar could tell a story, FictionFan. She did know how to weave psychological suspense, no doubt about that. And I like the fact her work doesn’t rely on a great deal of gore or violence. Happy to hear that you enjoyed your first introduction to her work, and I hope you’ll read more. She wrote plenty of standalones, so it’s easy to keep sampling without getting caught up in a series if you’d rather not do that.

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    • I loved that it all rested on the psychology of the characters – that works so much better for me than the physical clue or alibi type of mystery. And the characters felt quite modern considering how long ago it was written. Oh good! I’m all for standalones – series are good, but I’m not good at sticking with them! So great that so many publishers are bringing back these older books. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Nor me till the last few months when there’s been a sudden spate of reviews, probably because Pushkin have been republishing some of them. I suspect she’s going to become a firm favourite of mine if this one’s anything to go by… 😀

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  2. I’ve noticed quite a few bloggers reading Margaret Millar recently, but this is the first review I’ve read that has made me think I might enjoy her books. I’ll have to give one a try soon and find out!

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    • Given that you’ve been enjoying vintage crime recently too, I do think you’d enjoy this! It’s such a great mix of darkness and humour and the psychological aspects make it interesting. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of her stuff! 😀

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    • Oh, I must look out for that one then! I’m so glad so many publishers are bringing these older books to our attention – I can see Millar is going to become a firm favourite. 😀

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  3. Well this seems like a quirky little read! If it wasn’t vintage, I could have sworn it’s a recent release, it seems so contemporary! And it just occurred to me, I find ‘older’ humour, i.e. in older books and movies, way funnier than what I read nowadays. I’m not sure why, it just seems more clever and less crass…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought it felt very modern considering when it was written, especially the psychological aspects. And yes! Older humour is much more fun – they didn’t seem to feel they needed to shock or offend to be funny!

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