I was so tired last night when I got home from work–and I worked a short day! After work yesterday, a friend and I went to lunch to a place on the corner of Tulane and Carrollton called Namese, and I had an enormous bowl of beef pho, which was absolutely delicious. I was in the mood for noodles, and having never actually had pho before, was quite thrilled to try it, and it was amazing. I’ve been wanting to try pho since seeing a show on our local PBS channel, WYES, about the big Vietnamese community in New Orleans, and one of the things they talked about on the documentary was pho. I’d been wanting to try it ever since, and got my chance.
DAMN THAT WAS GOOD.
I’d known we have a big Vietnamese community in New Orleans for quite some time–most of them live in New Orleans East, and were devastated by the flooding after the levees failed back in 2005. Poppy Z. Brite wrote about that community in his brilliant (and deeply disturbing) Exquisite Corpse, doing it so well I never had the nerve to try to write about it myself. (Our first, and only, Congressman from Orleans Parish was a Vietnamese; Joseph Cao, who defeated “Dollar Bill” Jefferson in the post-Katrina scandal created by the fifty thousand dollars in cash he had stored in his home freezer. Cao was born in Ho Chi Minh City (then called Saigon), and only served one term in Congress–but I liked Congressman Cao; he put New Orleans ahead of party, and I was sorry to see him go.
I have an idea for a noir involving the Vietnamese communities of the Gulf Coast that I hope to write some day. I’ve also been toying with an old idea for a horror novel that’s been dancing in my head for the last thirty years or so–I can tell that I am writing another book; my creativity always spikes when I am writing a book.
Honestly. One would think I could get that under control.
Anyway, I also finished reading Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return last night. It wasn’t the below edition I read, but rather one of the volumes of The Collected Millar; this volume also contains Fire Will Freeze, Experiment in Springtime, The Cannibal Heart, and Rose’s Last Summer. But I rather like that Gothic-style cover.
The afternoon was still hot but the wind carried a threat of fog to come in the night. It slid in through the open window and with curious, insinuating fingers it pried into the corners of the reception room and lifted the skirt of Miss Schiller’s white uniform and explored the dark hair of the girl sitting by the door. The girl held a magazine in her lap but she wasn’t reading it; she was pleating the corners of the pages one by one.
“I don’t know if Dr. Keating will be able to see you,” Miss Schiller said. “It’s quite late.”
The girl coughed nervously. “I couldn’t get here any sooner. I–couldn’t find the office.”
“Oh. You’re a stranger in town?”
“Were you referred to Dr. Keating by anyone?”
“Did anyone send you?”
Margaret Millar is a treasure, and her work, despite now being dated because of societal and social changes, are worthy of not only being read by modern audiences but also deserving of study. She, along with Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong, formed a triumvirate of strong women writing suspense novels featuring women protagonists that were the equal of anything written by male contemporaries; there were numerous other women doing the same, but these three had longer careers and are now being rediscovered, in part thanks to the diligent work of Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks. Library of America has released a two-volume collection of works by great women writers of the time; Soho Crime is releasing thick volumes collecting all of Millar’s work, which I am happily acquiring. I read Armstrong when I was young, and loved her; I am in the process of working my way through the canons of both Millar and Hughes, as well as two other great women writers of the same period, the incomparable Patricia Highsmith and my personal hero, Daphne du Maurier.
Do Evil in Return, originally published in 1950, is ultimately a novel about how society and its hypocritical misogynistic treatment of women can destroy them. The main character of the novel, Dr. Charlotte Keating, is a strong, independent woman with a successful practice in a small California coastal town. She is both single and hard-working; owns her own car and her own home–no small feat for a woman in 1950–and the book opens with a young woman coming to her for help. The woman, Violet O’Gorman, is only twenty and married, but finds herself with a particular problem; estranged from her husband, she had a one-night stand with a married man which has left her pregnant, and she is desperate for an abortion, which of course was illegal in 1950. Dr. Keating–Charley to her friends–refuses to break the law and perform this service, but her heart goes out to her patient and wants to help her, but while distracted by a phone call doesn’t notice the girl slipping out of her office. With a local address her only clue as to how to find Violet, she goes looking for her…and soon finds herself wrapped up in a terrible string of events beyond control, a noose tightening around her own neck. For, like her patient, Charley herself is involved in a love affair with a married man–a platonic one, to be sure, for she refuses to become intimate with him as he is married–and the similarities she sees between herself and young Violet is part of what drives her. The following morning, Violet’s body washes ashore, an apparent suicide, according to the police but Charley herself isn’t so sure.
And of course, she is right.
Millar’s particular genius lies in how casually she lays out her cards; she never tells her reader straight out what’s going on, but allows it to unfurl naturally, leaving it to her reader to figure it out. When we meet Charley’s platonic lover, there is no mention of his being married–Millar simply talks about the stifling existence he has at home with Gwen. As the story continues the reader slowly realizes that Gwen is actually his wife, and she is also one of Charley’s patients. Charley has tried to foist Gwen off on other doctors, but hypochondriac Gwen refuses to see anyone else–and is incredibly needy, ringing Charley for help at all hours of the day or night. Charley’s own feelings for Gwen’s husband also aren’t that simple; and in 1950 divorces weren’t as easy to obtain as they are today.
Perhaps the strongest part of the book is how Millar clearly depicts how claustrophobic a woman’s world was in 1950, and the delicate balance a single, independent professional woman had to maintain. Exposure of the relationship would ruin Charley, both personally and professionally; just as Violet’s unexpected pregnancy has ruined her. Society’s expectations of women, and their sexuality, are the true villains, the true evil in this novel; and the realization that this world Millar so brilliantly depicts was only sixty-seven years ago is truly chilling.
I think this book would be excellent reading for a Women’s Studies course; to let young women know how truly awful and misogynistic society was not so long ago, as a reminder to everyone today how far women have come in a short period of time, and how hard they fought to get to where they are today.