“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!” William Shakespeare, Hamlet
It’s pure supposition that Margaret Millar took the title of her 1962 mystery masterpiece How Like An Angel from Hamlet, but the quote fits the book so well that it’s hard to chalk this up to coincidence.
Like the best of Shakespeare’s works, How Like An Angel is dark and darkly funny, tightly plotted and populated with characters that need no more than one or two lines to become real. Like the best mysteries, the ending is so perfect that you know it couldn’t have ended any other way.
How Like An Angel begins with P.I. Joe Quinn hitchhiking out of Reno, broke and out of a job. When his ride drops him just outside of The Tower, a cult-like religious order, Quinn finds himself taking on an assignment from one of The Tower’s residents. Sister Blessing asks only that Quinn go to a small town in California and find out what became of Patrick O’Gorman. It seems an easy enough assignment, but when Quinn gets to Chicote, he finds the mystery of Patrick O’Gorman’s disappearance five years ago is still a sore subject to more than one resident of the town.
As the story of O’Gorman’s disappearance becomes more tangled, Quinn makes more trips between Chicote and The Tower, and with each trip, the compound’s brothers and sisters seem less like the weirdos than the residents of Chicote. By the last third of the book, How Like An Angel seems less like a mystery than psychological horror, more akin to The Yellow Wallpaper than to The Big Sleep.
To say much more about the book’s plot would be a disservice to the reader, but suffice to say that even if you see the book’s mystery begin to unravel halfway through the book, you’re still in for a surprise at the end.
You’re in for a surprise, regardless.
No synopsis of How Like An Angel can prepare you for what you’ll find between the covers, nor do the first few pages. The book’s sparkling dialogue and pithy but affecting prose elevate it from pulpy detective novel to an unforgettable snapshot of postwar California. The mystery often plays second fiddle to the characters, from thoughtful, soft-hearted Quinn to Sister Karma, who just wants some acne cream, and Connelly, who employs Quinn to protect his boat from the ex-wife whom he hates in the morning (when he’s sober) and loves in the evening (when he’s drunk).
The book’s most memorable character, however, is California. Of the fictional Chicote, which could stand in for almost any mid-century California boomtown, Millar writes:
Fringed by oil wells and inhabited by the people who lived off them, it lay flat and brown and hard like something a cook had forgotten to take out of the oven… It was in the teenagers that Quinn saw the uneasiness caused by a too quick and easy prosperity. They cruised aimlessly up and down the streets in brand new convertibles and and ranch wagons. They stopped only at drive-in movies and drive-in malt shops and restaurants, keeping to their cars the way soldiers in enemy territory kept to their tanks.
Only the California of the late 1950s-early 1960s could have spawned The Tower, the true mystery of How Like An Angel. The 21st century reader cannot help but place How Like An Angel in the context of the religious cults and communes that sprung up around California and the rest of the U.S. in the decades following Millar’s book; that Millar declines to pass judgment on The Tower’s followers or beliefs is a testament to Millar’s skill. She makes it achingly clear how the weary, the kind and the vulnerable could be attracted to promises made by “Masters” like the one who presides over The Tower, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether The Tower’s Master is hero or villain. If you still can’t decide when the book is done, you’re not alone.