The women’s section of the cell-block was empty except for Virginia. Miss Jennings unlocked the door. ‘Here’s that man again, Mrs Barkeley.’
Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing yellow, and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes.
She raised her head and gave him a long unfriendly stare that reminded him of Mrs Hamilton, though there was no physical resemblance between the mother and daughter.
‘Good morning, Mrs Barkeley.’
‘Why don’t you get me out of here?’ she said flatly.
observations: I love this photograph so much, I once MADE UP a book extract to go with it.
I found it in the early days of the blog, but thought it was so specific I would never have a chance to use it – so: I had it as an avatar for a while. And, for an April Fool entry back in 2012, I wrote a few paragraphs that could be illustrated by this photograph. That’s pretty extreme. I tried to imagine the book-within-a-book in Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent: you can see the fake entry for Fleur Talbot’s Warrender Chase here.
And finally, happily, here is a real book to go with the photo!
It’s Margaret Millar’s centenary year - she was born in February 1915 and died in 1994. She was American-Canadian, and was married to thriller writer Ross MacDonald.
It’s probably fair to say that Millar is revered among crime fiction fans, but not well-known outside that circle. She wrote sharp thrillers, dark and serious, with normal suburban people thrust into dangerous and difficult situations. She didn’t waste words, and crammed a lot of plot into relatively short books (some modern authors, stretching themselves out over 500 pages, could learn a lot from her). There was usually a very good twist or surprise at the end: one that would make you think back and work out with satisfaction that (for an example not from this book) no, X and Y had never been in the room together. She was a mistress of plotting.
In this one, a young married woman has been out on the town, drinking too much, sitting in bars with someone else’s husband. When this other man is found dead, she is the main suspect, and that’s why she’s in jail. Her mother comes to try to help her, and a young lawyer is on hand too. All kinds of unexpected things happen, starting with someone else confessing to the crime. We are shown inside various households in a small town in Michigan, following some miserable marriages and unhappy people. The town is called Arbana, and from its position would seem to be Ann Arbor.
I loved this sentence from the jail visit above:
The overhead lights went off suddenly and the feeble rays of the morning sun filtered in through the barred windows like dim hopes.… not that most people in Millar’s books can be very hopeful.
But the books will surely live on among conoisseurs of crime fiction.
The picture (it dates from 1950, this book from 1952) is from the George Eastman House colletion. It is called Woman in Cell playing Solitaire, and is by Nickolas Murray.