May 02, 2005

BOOKS: How Like an Angel, Margaret Millar (1962)

Joe Quinn finds himself at an isolated religious community in rural California, and is asked by Sister Blessing of the Salvation to go to the town of Chicote and find out if Patrick O'Gorman is still living there. She doesn't want him to contact O'Gorman or deliver a message; she just wants to know if he's there.

He's not, having disappeared under suspicious circumstances some five years earlier. Quinn's curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds himself getting more involved with the case, and the people involved in it, than he had planned.

This is very nice writing, with crisp, believable dialogue and vivid characters. It would be easy (and probably entertaining) for Millar to poke fun at the extreme beliefs of Sister Blessing and her community, but Millar, while recognizing that they are out of the norm, treats them with respect.

Parts of the book are a bit dated, notably the attitude towards homosexuality, which briefly becomes an issue in one subplot. Millar's characters react to the notion as one might expect, given the period, with a mixture of disgust and pity, but it is not as hateful or abusive as it could be, and MIllar is not without compassion for those characters.

The ending, I suspect, is less surprising now than it would have been 40 years ago, Millar's central twist having been used many times since. But it's still effective, and the final surprise is nicely delayed until the very last paragraph of the book.

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