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HOW LIKE AN ANGEL by Margaret Millar: Golden Oldie

How Like an Angel was written in 1962, exactly fifty years ago. It’s a true classic.

Joe Quinn, licensed Nevada private detective/security guard, has been cleaned out at the Reno gambling tables and has grabbed a ride back to California with a friend.  The friend, in a hurry to get home, leaves him at the side of the road some forty-five miles from San Felice, Joe’s destination.  The friend tells him that there’s a religious community just up the road that will give him food and drink and shelter for the night, so without any other resource to fall back on Joe takes his advice.

The Tower is a community of twenty-seven people, including three children, that is headed by The Master. The members have renounced all worldly goods–telephones, television, regular clothes–the better to get to heaven; it is their belief that wearing wool robes, going barefoot, and bathing no more than weekly in cold water will assure them a place in Paradise.  Even their given names have been left behind–now they are known as Sister Blessing, Brother Tongue, Brother Crown, and Brother Light of the Infinite, for example.

During his overnight stay, Joe is approached by Sister Blessing, who acts as the nurse and manager of The Tower.  She appears kind and concerned about Joe’s physical and emotional well-being, and when she learns that he is a detective she asks him to do a job for her.  She emphasizes that this is against the rules of the community, and she pays him with money secreted from the others that her son sends her every Christmas.

Sister Blessing’s request is that Joe go into Chicote, a nearby town, and find a man named Patrick O’Gorman. He’s not a friend or relative, she assures Joe, and she doesn’t want Joe to contact him in any way.   Whether O’Gorman is in Chicote or not, she tells Joe to “come back here and tell me about it, me and only me.”

Joe is only slightly interested, but he’s broke and doesn’t have any other job offers.  So he gets a ride to San Felice in the community’s truck the next morning and starts asking questions.  And early on he discovers that Patrick O’Gorman has been missing and presumed dead for five years.

The novel takes a number of twists and turns, and circles back on itself again, but every detour has a reason and every red herring is perfectly contrived.  About ten pages from the end of the book I realized what had happened in the past and what was about to happen, and I was blown away.  The plot is so skillful and well thought out that it made me want to start reading How Like an Angel over again to see if I could have/should have figured out the ending sooner.

Margaret Millar lived from 1915 to 1994; she was the wife of Kenneth Millar, better known to mystery fans as Ross Macdonald.  Imagine having that couple to your house for drinks and dinner!

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