Born in Kitchener, Ontario, she was educated at the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto. She moved to the United States after marrying Kenneth Millar (better known under the pen name Ross Macdonald). They resided for decades in the city of Santa Barbara, which was often utilized as a locale in her later novels under the pseudonyms of San Felice or Santa Felicia. The Millars had a daughter who died in 1970.
Styles and themes
Millar's books are distinguished by depth of characterization. Often we are shown the rather complex interior lives of the people in her books, with issues of class, insecurity, failed ambitions, loneliness or existential isolation or paranoia often being explored. Unusual people, mild societal misfits or people who don't quite fit into their surroundings are given much interior detail. In some of the books (for example in The Iron Gates) we are given insight into what it feels like to be losing touch with reality and evolving into madness. In general, she is a writer of both expressive description and economy, often ambitious in conveying the sociological context of the stories.
Millar often delivers “surprise endings,” but the details that would allow the solution of the surprise have usually been subtly included, in the best genre tradition. Her books focus on subtleties of human interaction and rich psychological detail of individual characters as much as on plot.
Millar was a pioneer in writing about the psychology of women. Even as early as the '40s and '50s, her books have a mature and matter-of-fact view of class distinctions, sexual freedom and frustration, and the ambivalence of moral codes depending on a character's economic circumstances. Read against the backdrop of Production Code-era movies of the time, they remind us that life as lived in the '40s and '50s was not as black-and-white morally as Hollywood would have us believe.
Many websites cite her as working as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers just after World War II, but no further details are given as to what she may have worked on, even on imdb.com. Around that time, Warners bought the option on her novel The Iron Gates, with its portrait of a woman descending into madness, but reportedly Bette Davis and other prominent Warner Brothers actresses ultimately turned it down because the memorable protagonist is missing for the last third of the story. The film was never produced. In the early '60s, two of her novels (Beast in View and Rose's Last Summer) were adapted for the anthology TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller.
While she was not known for any one recurring detective (unlike her husband, whose constant gumshoe was Lew Archer), she occasionally used a detective character for more than one novel. Among her occasional ongoing sleuths were Canadians Dr. Paul Prye (her first invention, in the earliest books) and Inspector Sands (a quiet, unassuming Canadian police inspector who might be the most endearing of her recurring inventions). In the California years, a few books featured either Joe Quinn, a rather down-on-his-luck private eye, or Tom Aragorn, a young, Hispanic lawyer.
Most of Millar's books are out of print in America, with the exception of the short story collection The Couple Next Door and two novels, “An Air That Kills” and “Do Evil In Return”, that have been re-issued as classics by Stark House Press in California.
Awards and recognition
In 1956 Millar won the Edgar Allan Poe Awards, Best Novel award for Beast in View. In 1965 she was awarded the Woman of the Year Award by the Los Angeles Times.
In 1983 she was awarded the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in recognition of her lifetime achievements.
In 1987, critic and mystery writer H.R.F Keating included Millar's Beast In View in his Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books. He wrote:
“Margaret Millar is surely one of late twentieth-century crime fiction's best writers, in the sense that the actual writing in her books, the prose, is of superb quality. On almost every page of this one there is some description, whether of a physical thing or a mental state, that sends a sharp ray of extra meaning into the reader's mind.”