Margaret Millar (1915-1994) was married to Kenneth Millar, better known as crime fiction author Ross MacDonald, but despite having an Edgar Award and over 25 novels to her credit, she never gained the same popularity as her husband. My local public library only had one of her books in the stacks, but several MacDonalds. A likely reason for the neglect is that she didn't have a breakout series character like MacDonald's Lew Archer, writing mostly standalones.
The Millars made a good writing team, such as the times Margaret helped her husband with dialogue. "I did teach him to write better dialogue so that everybody didn't sound like him. In the first two books, all of the characters talked like Ken! I don't even know anybody who talks like Ken. And I told him he had to listen...And we went around to a lot of places: pawn shops, low bars...And he realized how different people talk." Apparently, Kenneth also once said that the best lines usually resulted from the many arguments the couple had. If you want to read a truly in-depth article on the writing Millars and how they influenced each others' work, see if you can grab a copy of Mystery Readers Journal from Fall 2001 and read "Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar: Partners in Crime" by Tom Nolan.
The Soft Talkers is the U.K. title for Margaret Millar's novel from 1957, originally released in the U.S. as An Air That Kills. It follows the seemingly perfect married couple, Harry and Thelma Bream. Harry's best friend Ron Galloway invites his pals to his lakeside hunting lodge for the weekend, but then fails to show up. The worried friends call Galloway's house and speak to his wife, Esther, to find out what's keeping him, but the wife tells them Galloway left a long time ago. Then Thelma drops the bombshell on friend-caught-in the-middle Ralph Turee that she is pregnant with Ron's child. The investigation grows cold, and it isn't until much time has passed, when Ron is found dead buckled into his submerged convertible, that the even colder, twisted truth comes to light.
Millar's attention to dialogue is evident, part of the meticulous detail she gives to building her characters. Although she admittedly wasn't a fan of action-driven plots, her meticulous weaving of plot, clues and misdirection are all in fine form here, as is her zingy prose, examples of which you can find on nearly every page, like these:
He had a sensation that he and Harry were stationary and the night was moving past them swiftly, turbulent with secrets. To the right the bay was visible in the reflection of a half moon. The waves nudged each other and winked slyly and whispered new secrets.
Thelma, the day-dreamer, who fed her mediocrity with meaty chunks of dreams until it was fat beyond her own recognition. Under this system of mental dietetics Thelma became a woman equipped with great psychic powers...
It was merely the skeleton of the truth. Only an expert could add the flesh and blood and muscle and all the vital organs that would make it a whole, borrowing a little here, a little there...
Although it's a shame Millar isn't as well known as MacDonald, it's nice to see that a couple of her novels have been reissued recently by Stark House Press. Maybe new readers can discover why Anthony Boucher said of her writing, "Devilishly devious trick-plotting given substance by acute and terrifying psychological insight."