The Listening Walls: Margaret Millar (1959)

Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls begins in Mexico City with two American women, married, quiet Amy Kellogg and hot mess Wilma arguing in their hotel room. Wilma is busy bitching about Mexico which is odd since she’s the one who decided she wanted to vacation there, but then it becomes clear that Wilma, a spoiled rich woman who suffers from “nerves,” bitches about everything.

Wilma had had a bad year, a divorce (her second), the death of her parents in a plane wreck, a bout of pneumonia. She had planned the holiday in Mexico to get away from it all. Instead she had taken it all with her.

The argument is overheard by hotel maid Consuela who, thanks to a stay in America, speaks and understands English. She likes to listen in on guests and if she has an opportunity, she steals what she can. One evening the two American women spend the evening in a local bar with a ne’er-do-well drifter American named O’Donnell, and that night, Wilma falls from her hotel room balcony. She was drunk, and her death is ruled a suicide.

the listening walls

Amy’s husband Rupert flies down to Mexico to deal with the situation and bring Amy home. That would seem to be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning. Gill, Amy’s over-protective brother wants to see his sister when she returns home, but she simply vanishes. According to Amy’s husband Rupert, Amy wants some time alone and will shortly be in touch. To Gill, things don’t add up, and suspecting Rupert’s motives, he hires a private detective.

This is my second Millar novel. Margaret Millar doesn’t seem much read these days, and she’s faded in comparison to her husband, Ross Macdonald. The Listening Walls was initially hard to get into due to the cringe-worthy portrayal of Mexicans (immature, dishonest, sleazy), but once the novel moves back to America, things pick up. This is mostly due to the characters, which is ironic since that’s the very thing that weakened the novel in the beginning.

There’s Dodd, the determined, no-frills detective who digs deep for information, a veterinarian whose single-minded devotion to animals always comes first (my favourite scene), an all-too devoted secretary who ballroom dances, dodging the geezers who might drop in the middle of a tango, Gill a man whose primary relationship is with his sister–not his wife, and then there’s Gill’s far-from-loyal wife, Helene who hopes her sister-in-law never reappears:

She munched in a piece of crisp bacon, listening to Gill the way one listens to the waves breaking on a beach, knowing the noise will always be the same, only varying in volume now and then with the tides and the weather.

So often the noise was about Amy, and Helene listened out of habit. without interest. In her opinion, Amy was a dull little creature, invested with wit by her brother and beauty by her husband, and having, in fact, neither. 

I didn’t buy the ending but I preferred The Listening Walls to Beast in View.

Blogging amiga Jacqui also reviewed the book, and we more or less felt the same about it.

9 Comments

Filed under Millar Margaret

9 responses to “The Listening Walls: Margaret Millar (1959)

  1. Ha, you’re all reading it now! I’ll have to reread, it’s been a while since I read this one. Beast in View is a bit of a gut punch. Maybe that’s why I didn’t include it in my ‘homage to MM’ for Crime Fiction Lover.
    https://crimefictionlover.com/2017/09/cis-rediscovering-margaret-millar/

  2. Sorry, I meant not included Listening Walls, rather than Beast in View.

  3. tracybham

    I thought I had read this one, but no, it was Wall of Eyes that I read (and liked very much). I am sorry to hear about the negative portrayal of Mexicans but I will read this one eventually anyway. Right now my only copy is in a collection and I have put off reading those because of the tiny print in that edition. I have several other books by her to try. Including Beast in View.

  4. Ah, lovely to see your review of this, and thanks for the link to mine – very kind. You make a good point about Millar’s portrayal of Mexicans in the novel. It’s rather lazy and prejudiced, whereas the American characters seem much more nuanced.

    • It’s one thing to show characters in that fashion through the eyes of another character, but quite another to show those thoughts through the authorial voice. Probably fairly standard given the times.

  5. I’ll come back to your and Jacqui’s review once I’ve read the book that’s high on my piles.

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