Review: The Soft Talkers

 

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The Soft Talkers

Margaret Millar

Penguin Crime, 1957

Detective novels where the detective element only appears in the last chapter have a tendency to be both bad and irritating, and The Soft Talkers is no exception. The reader is left with the impression that the author really wished to write a character study, and the result would undoubtedly be a fine (if a little dull) piece of modern literature, and the pseudo-literary title reflects this (the original American edition was The Air That Kills, which makes even less sense). But detective fiction sold whilst novel-length character studies languished unpublished, and thus we get messes like this. (See also Julian Symon’s The Kentish Manor Murders which manages to be a decent-ish thriller instead; and Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde, to which I won’t give the privilege of a review.) There’s nothing quite like reading a book, knowing everything there is to know about a select group of characters, but by the end just thinking…why?

This is made baffling by the fact that the author was once President of the Mystery Writers of America and, according to the back-cover blurb, “is generally regarded as the heiress-apparent to Agatha Christie”. But then even Dame Agatha inflicted the world with Endless Night and, at the warning “praise” of ‘the final chapter packs a knock-out punch’ (Daily Telegraph, and was that really the best quote they could find?) it would perhaps have been best to have put the book down and moved on to something else. Perhaps the purpose is to prove that the writer can write, and maybe it sometimes succeeds in doing so. But better authors can do both a solid plot and auteur writing at the same time, and when an author thinks only one is possible it’s simply disrespectful to the reader. And if a reader doesn’t have the author’s respect, the author doesn’t deserve the reader. It’s a brilliant work of something, but it’s not a detective novel.

And it’s the attempt to be both that makes The Soft Talkers not only a failure, but a baffling one. The plot is entirely character driven – no messing around with alibis, evidence or fingerprints – and written differently might have been an entirely character-driven success in the manner of Cards on The Table. And it’s a pity, because both the characters and the writing are so sharp they hurt. By the end of the first page we get the line

‘Esther knew where he was going, but she was the kind of woman who liked to ask questions to which she already knew the answers. It gave her a sense of security.’

and we know that this is a book where character counts. The portrayals of the middle-aged central suspects are so pathetic (in the traditional sense) that they’re almost painful. The vignettes of those involved in the murder: the Mennonite schoolgirl who wants to be an explorer, the widowed mother and her brash daughter, the spinster provincial teacher secretly eyeing up the investigating officer, the ex-wife who lives on bitterness and hypochondria, the parody of the investigative reporter who cons his way into a character’s house pretending to sell water softeners…only to be caught out when she asks to buy one. The detective figure, academic Ralph Turee, is enjoyable bland though his happy family life is significantly odd in a story where every other character is unremittingly nasty, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or both. The book would have made an extremely good murder-procedural. But unfortunately it tacks a mystery onto the end.

Some people may read it and think that it’s a work of brilliance, but for all its skill The Soft Talkers never quite plays fair. You can read it as a description of run-of-the-mill people coping with life and death and it’s reasonable. But it’s an imperfect detective novel because we only know it’s a detective novel because of the green cover of Penguin Crime, and when we don’t know the genre the reader can’t play along with the writer’s game. It’s a very imperfect character study because the ending completely invalidates everything that has gone before – it’d be a better novel if it had skipped out the last chapter, a better detective story if it were a good ninety pages thinner around the middle. For a good story, get the scissors.

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