Margaret Millar was a prolific and talented author with three series and several standalones to her credit. This is the third and last of her Tom Aragon novels.
Cleo Jasper, a beautiful woman in her early twenties drops out of sight while attending an exclusive school for the learning disabled. Shortly before her disappearance, she had wandered into the law offices of Tom Aragon, the engaging young hero of Ask for Me Tomorrow and The Murder of Miranda. Cleo's older brother Hilton, hires Aragon to find the vulnerable girl and bring her back home. Hilton's dedication to his little sister is tinged with guilt - and perhaps something more - for he has already alienated his wife and son by his devotion to Cleo.
In a trailer park, far from the kind of environment Cleo has been used to, Aragon finds the body of her closest friend, a counselor at the school. The corpse is surrounded by suicide messages, one of them addressed to Cleo. But he doesn't find Cleo, who remains as elusive and as slippery as a mermaid.
Agatha Christie was a great admirer of Margaret Millar's work becuase "she is always different." She always is. Mermaid is a striking example of her storytelling skill and her never-failing ability to surprise.
The novel begins when twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper comes to the law offices of Smedler, Downs, Castleberg, MacFee & Powell. She doesn’t have an appointment and she doesn’t seem to have a personal relationship with any of the attorneys there. In fact, we’re alerted that something about Cleo is different when she tells the receptionist that she’d like a ride in the founding partner’s private elevator. All of a sudden, Cleo notices Tom Aragon, a junior attorney in the firm, and insists on meeting with him. She tells Aragon that she wants to know her rights. When Aragon asks her to be more specific, it’s soon clear that Cleo Jasper has a form of mental retardation, although she’s high-functioning. She attends an exclusive special school and seems to be doing well. But, as she tells Aragon, she never gets to do what she wants, when she wants; her life is conscripted. Aragon isn’t able to help her much and soon enough, she takes her leave. Aragon thinks it was a very odd visit, but not much else about it.We soon find out that Cleo is the much younger sister of successful business executive Hilton Jasper. Their mother died in childbirth, and since the age of eight, Cleo has made her home with her brother, his wife Frieda and their twenty-one-year-old son Ted. One day, Cleo disappears. Hilton Jasper hires a private detective, who traces Cleo to Aragon’s office. Jasper asks Aragon to find his sister and persuade her to return. Aragon agrees and begins to ask some questions.
Aragon has to put the pieces of the puzzle together to finds out what happened to Cleo and how it might relate to other terrible crimes.
We follow Aragon as he interviews people, puts together clues that he learns, and finds out what’s happened to Cleo. The last third of the novel takes Cleo’s point of view, although it’s not told in first person. It goes over some of the events we’ve already learned of, but lets us know what was happening in the meantime. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, and I didn’t find that it pulled me out of the story. Readers who prefer a more or less linear story, though, should be aware of this interesting manipulation of the time line.
Mermaid also raises some important larger issues. For instance, what are the rights of young adults with special needs? To what extent should they determine their own futures? What happens if they do? The novel was published in 1982, so it also addresses the question of women’s roles. A few of the male characters in the novel are faced with the new roles women want to play, and have trouble dealing with them. It should be noted though that this question is handled subtly (which makes it all the more effective, in my opinion), and that deep-dyed misogyny isn’t a theme of the book.
Mermaid is a psychological novel and a compelling character study. The mystery is there and it’s believable. But the real appeal is the characters.
About Margret Millar:
Margaret Ellis Millar (née Sturm) was an American-Canadian mystery and suspense writer. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, she was educated there and in Toronto. She moved to the United States after marrying Kenneth Millar (better known under the pen name Ross Macdonald). They resided for decades in the city of Santa Barbara, which was often utilized as a locale in her later novels under the pseudonyms of San Felice or Santa Felicia. Millar's books are distinguished by sophistication of characterization. Often we are shown the rather complex interior lives of the people in her books, with issues of class, insecurity, failed ambitions, loneliness or existential isolation or paranoia often being explored with an almost literary quality that transcends the mystery genre. Unusual people, mild societal misfits or people who don't quite fit into their surroundings are given much interior detail. In some of the books we are given chilling and fascinating insight into what it feels like to be losing touch with reality and evolving into madness. In general, she is a writer of both expressive description and yet admirable economy, often ambitious in the sociological underpinnings of the stories and the quality of the writing.
Millar often delivers effective and ingenious "surprise endings," but the details that would allow the solution of the surprise have usually been subtly included, in the best genre tradition. One of the distinctions of her books, however, is that they would be interesting, even if you knew how they were going to end, because they are every bit as much about subtleties of human interaction and rich psychological detail of individual characters as they are about the plot.