In Santa Felicia County, California, Cully Paul King, the attractive Caribbean captain of a private yacht — a black man, a ladies’ man — is on trial for first-degree murder. Madeline Pherson, a married woman whose body was found in the ocean, wrapped in kelp, was last seen on Cully’s boat, Bewitched. Cully is accused of killing her for her jewelry, which she kept in a green box that has mysteriously disappeared. But just as perplexing as the circumstances of Pherson’s death are the motives of the people involved in Cully’s trial. Cully’s lawyer, Charles Donnelly, has volunteered to become the defense counsel — for no fee. Eva Foster, the feminist court clerk, takes an unusual interest in the case. Harry and Richie Arnold, a father and son who were Cully’s crewmen, have vastly different stories to tell about the accused. All these characters are caught in webs of suspicions, secrets, and hidden passions, as are the crochety old Judge Hazeltine and Oliver Owen, the racist district attorney. Intermingled with the court proceedings are scenes from the private lives of the people involved in the trial: Eva Foster combining her work as court clerk with falling in love with the defendant; defense counsel Donnelly trying to cope with a life and a wife he despises; the teenaged crewman, Richie, convincing himself that Cully is his real father; and Cully himself presenting two faces to the world. Was he a promiscuous man with a violent temper when drunk? Or was he a hardworking innocent man drawn into someone else’s tragedy? As expert testimony weakens the case against Cully, it merely strengthens the opinion of his own lawyer, Donnelly, and the judge, Hazeltine, that he is guilty. Free-spirited Cully is not sure which would be worse, to be sent to prison or to be acquitted to face the demands of all the people who want something from him, people to whom he wishes to give nothing in return. Margaret Millar has been attending murder trials as a court watcher for forty years, but this is the first book she has written about a trial. Although entirely fictional, Spider Webs has all the elements of an actual trial — tragedy, comedy, and the suspense caused by the unpredictable behavior of human beings under stress.
The request was an odd one, and it came to Quinn from an unlikely source. Her name was Sister Blessing of the Salvation, and she belonged to a quasi-religious colony which had established itself in the California mountains, far from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Though money was forbidden in the colony, she paid Quinn one hundred and twenty dollars to find out if a man named Patrick O’Gorman was still living in the desert town of Chicote.
It turned out that O’Gorman had disappeared under mysterious circumstances five years before. As Quinn investigated these circumstances, he discovered that Sister Blessing and some of her fellow colonists were as deeply involved with the world and the flesh as the people of Chicote. He saw their lives disrupted by violent passions and ultimately by violent death.
As the intricate design of this novel emerges, it builds a pattern of mounting terror which reaches its climax on the last page, Mrs. Millar has never told a story of such sweep, ranging from the mountains to the desert, from a millionaire’s yacht to a cell in die state penitentiary, and into the darkest recesses of the human mind. Beginning with Quinn himself, the young detective who has his own moral problems, the characters are depicted with wit and penetration. This is perhaps the most compelling novel that Margaret Millar has given us in the course of her continually surprising career.
The premise of Margaret Millar’s new suspense novel is simple and shocking. Charlie Gowen, a handsome young man with a badly disordered past, finds himself profoundly drawn toward a nine-year-old girl. His past record suggests, even to Charlie himself, that his sick passion for little Jessie is placing her life in jeopardy. But he can’t stay away from her school, her street, her house.
If the premise of Mrs. Millar’s story is simple enough, its development is complex and compelling. Charlie’s fiancée Louise, who loves him desperately, risks her life in an effort to save him from the dark forces of his own nature. Half a dozen other adults, Jessie’s parents, friends and neighbors, become involved in the network of guilt and menace which surrounds the child. Without sacrificing its quality of almost unbearable suspense, this novel makes a searching and scathing inquiry into the guilty relations of adults with children. To read it is a shaking experience.
The decomposed body of a much-loved eight-year-old, Annamay Hyatt, is found in a wooded creekside area. To an agonizing degree everyone concerned with Annamay feels responsible. To an even more agonizing degree, someone is.
The effect of the child’s violent death runs through the community like a plague. It infects not only her parents and her cousin, Dru, the same age as Annamay, but everyone who lives or works in the area, from the aging gay who gives young parties to the white-robed con man who comes to the creek and hears a banshee.
Perhaps most bereft is Annamay’s grandfather who studies the ancient Japanese fish in the koi pond, appalled that they and he should still be alive while an eight-year-old is dead. Through a telescope he watches the retired madam who lives in her villa across the canyon, surrounded by keepers. The madam also hears the banshee.
Friends of the family are also badly infected, one of them fatally. These include Ben York, the young architect who designed the Hyatts’ house and the little girl’s play palace; his brash mistress who resents his attachment to the Hyatts; the minister who officiated at Annamay’s baptism and now her funeral and loses his faith in the process; and even the housekeeper, Chizzy, bewildered because Annamay did not heed her repeated warnings not to talk to strangers.
Margaret Millar is a highly praised, widely read novelist. Banshee shows why, for over four decades, she has maintained a steady and devoted following.