Prolific Mystery Writer Margaret Millar Dies


Margaret Millar, the prolific author of more than 25 psychological mystery novels and two-time winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, has died. She was 79.

Mrs. Millar died Saturday in her Santa Barbara home, her sister, Dorothy Schlagel, said Monday.

The Mystery Writers of America gave Mrs. Millar her first Poe Award in 1956 for her novel "Beast in View" and her second in 1983 for "Banshee." The organization, which she served as president from 1957 to 1958, also gave her its Grand Master Award for life achievement.

The Canadian-born "Maggie" Sturm Millar was the widow of Kenneth Millar, better known as Ross Macdonald, the mystery writer who created the series of novels and films based on fictional detective Lew Archer. Macdonald, who first wrote about Archer in 1949, died 11 years ago of Alzheimer's disease. The couple's only child, Linda, died earlier of an embolism.

The Millars, who frequently described themselves as "bookends," met as high school debaters in their native Kitchener, Canada. Their first stories--hers was called "Impromptu" and his "The South Sea Soup Co."--were published in 1931 in their high school magazine, the Grumbler. It was one of the few times their works appeared together in print.

After attending the University of Toronto, the two married in 1938. She settled them in Santa Barbara--known as Santa Felicia in many of her novels and by various Spanish names in his--during World War II while he was serving in the U.S. Navy.

"When you grew up in Kitchener, where you had to pass the slaughterhouse on the way to school every day, Santa Barbara was paradise," she said in a 1983 interview with The Times.

Her husband, who also earned a Poe Award, chose a pseudonym because she achieved recognition as the writer named Millar first.

"By going on ahead and breaking trail," her husband wrote of their intertwined careers, "she helped to make it possible for me to become a novelist, as perhaps her life with me had helped to make it possible for her."

Mrs. Millar wrote her first book, "The Invisible Worm" published in 1941, when she was bedridden with a heart condition after their daughter's birth.

Years later, not even legal blindness slowed Maggie Millar's prolific output, although it did prompt her to switch from writing longhand to dictating into a tape recorder, and then typing the transcript. Eventually, she used a tape system that fed back the work in white letters on a black background, which she could read.

She suffered from macular degeneration, which a series of laser surgeries failed to correct, and had only peripheral vision.

"If I couldn't write now I'd probably go off my rocker. Writing keeps me sane--or as sane as I am," she told The Times with her characteristic good humor in 1982, when her vision difficulties and her husband's Alzheimer's disease were full-blown.

Independence was never a problem for the woman who made her mark as a novelist married to a novelist decades before women's liberation.

"I took my space. I just assumed I had it," she said in 1983. "I probably would have had an argument if I'd been married to some macho type. But Ken was a civilized man."

Known for her tightly written, elegantly constructed, witty books, Mrs. Millar wrote such psychological thrillers as "The Devil Loves Me" in 1942, "Fire Will Freeze" in 1944, "Do Evil in Return" in 1950, "An Air That Kills" in 1957, "A Stranger in My Grave" in 1961, "The Murder of Miranda" in 1979 and "Mermaid" in 1982.

When "Banshee," about the murder of a little girl in a California avocado orchard, was published in 1983, Times reviewer Judith Szarka noted:

"This mystery does not make the heart pound with tension, but it entertains and charms with humor and compassion. (Mrs.) Millar, a prolific mystery writer . . . reaffirms her reputation as a doyenne of the genre."

The Times' Charles Champlin, comparing the writing of Macdonald and Mrs. Millar, commented after Mrs. Millar published "Mermaid":

"Perhaps the single quality linking the work of husband and wife, beyond the setting of Southern California and the detection story form, is their clear and copious compassion for their imagined characters as tokens (the reader senses) for real-life figures caught in somewhat comparable dramas that are neither imaginary nor satisfactorily soluble."

For Mrs. Millar's books and for her service in such organizations as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, she was honored as a Times Woman of the Year in 1965.

Her favorite avocations included court-watching in the historic Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a prime source of material for her murder mysteries, and entertaining friends of all ages--provided they were careful of their attire and their grammar.

"That's the Canadian part of me," she explained with a chuckle. "One should dress properly and have at least a nodding acquaintance with the English language."

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