For me, infidelity as the underlying premise of a plot is a hard line that I almost never cross, so Margaret Millar’s An Air That Kills was not an obvious choice in novels to read on my holiday, but Brian Busby, of The Dusty Bookcase and Canadian Notes & Queries, whose opinion I greatly respect, suggests it as one of her best, so I here I am.
Having reached about a third of the way through the book as we sit in a tent in Nakusp, BC, I have to say that I don’t really like any of the players, whether or not I question their moral choices. In fact, it feels to me that even Millar doesn’t like any of the characters. Not a promising beginning, but bear with me. What we have so far is a novel peopled with seemingly reprehensible individuals, engaging in socially questionable behaviours, and as yet no real mystery. And still the story sticks in my head when I am not reading it: not for prurient reasons, but in a more detached way, like the detective tasked with discovering the sequence of events leading up to the crime. But as I say, as yet there has been no crime and still Millar manages to engage me fully in the narrative. This borders on genius, if only because I have no idea why I find this novel so engrossing. But I do. And so I am anxious for our next stop so I can read on.
Grand Forks, BC: I take back what I said about Millar not liking any of her characters: it appears that—to some extent at least—Ralph Turee is a stand-up guy… When Thelma Bream attempts to embroil him in her drama, his honest yet uncompromising responses to her manipulative behaviour reveal at least a modicum of moral and social intelligence.
Vancouver, BC, much later: Ralph Turee’s true nature wasn’t at first obvious, but as the mystery of Ron Galloway’s disappearance progresses, his intelligence begins to overshadow the crassness inherent in his initial description. In the end, it is he who finally discovers the course of events leading up to Millar’s rather abrupt dénouement. Here’s how it all unfolds.
As the story opens, affluent Ron Galloway and his best friend Harry Bream are off to join “the fellows” at Ron’s fishing lodge for the weekend, but Ron never arrives. Harry Bream
worked for a drug company [and was] extremely liberal with free pills, diagnoses and advice. On occasion he was more effective than a regular doctor since he was unhampered by training, medical ethics or caution, and some of his cures were miraculously quick. These were the ones his friends remembered.
“The fellows” are three other of their friends:
Bill Winslow, an executive in his father’s milling company; Joe Hepburn, manager of a firm which manufactured plastic toys and novelties; and Ralph Turee, who taught economics at the University of Toronto. Except for Turee, they were men of average intelligence and above average income., Turee never let them forget this. Chronically broke, he made fun of their money and borrowed it; possessing a superior education, he jeered at their ignorance and used it to his own advantage. But the group was, on the whole, a congenial one, especially after small differences had been dissolved in alcohol.
So far, I am really liking these men.
Ron Galloway is married to Esther, with whom he had an affair, leaving his wife Dorothy, who is now in ill health and understandably very bitter. Esther feels guilty about Dorothy and insecure about Harry’s wife Thelma, who Ron appears fond of, although Ron tells Esther that he thinks Thelma a “fattish little hausfrau with some of her marbles missing.”
Though Thelma and Esther did not get along well, the two men remained the best of friends, partly because Thelma seemed to like Galloway and encouraged Harry to see him, and partly because the two men had been friends ever since their prep school years together.
And so the stage is set.
When Ron doesn’t show up at the fishing lodge, Esther’s first assumption is that he’s with Thelma. Which he isn’t. But her suspicion is not unfounded, a fact that underlies the complicated plot that unfolds… or rather doesn’t, for Millar holds her narrative cards very close to her chest. We are given all sorts of information as Turee acquires it. The narration is limited omniscient: much of what we have is through the filter of Turee’s psyche, but not all. We are certainly not given access to the working of many of the players’ minds. Thelma ensnares Turee—likely as the most sympathetic and sensible of the men—in the drama as soon as Ron is pronounced missing. Sadly for her, his intellectual bent ensures that he follows his curiosity and concern (he is, as his wife observes, “much kinder than [she or any of the other characters] about human frailties”) until he discovers the truth.
Turee’s discovery of the truth, almost serendipitously, as he is given a fellowship to a university in California where Thelma had moved, is somewhat disappointing. After the complex development of character and social interaction throughout the novel, the mechanism of the actual crime is delivered through a simple albeit very disturbing conversation amongst Ralph Turee, Harry, and Thelma in the final act. Turee’s opinion half-way through the book is certainly justified: “All of Thelma’s high hopes had been built on deceit and her wonderful plans made entirely at the expense of other people.”
Returning to why this book is so good then: I still can’t pin it down, but it is. I suppose it is because the author’s intelligence underlies the narrative so subtly: in the way she structures her ideas; in the irony of her narrative voice; in poignant, if sometimes unflattering descriptions of her characters; in her insight into the nuances of the morality of the society she portrays. I have to say, though, that the moments of satisfaction I felt when reading mostly came in scenes of Ralph Turee reflecting on the situation: his analysis of his social circle is ultimately uncompromising, balancing the moral lassitude exhibited by the characters around him.