Reading 1959: The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The Listening Walls.

This novel is a proper bit of pulp: private eyes, seedy hotels, subsumed lust and bloody murder, served up without pause for breath, in violently stripped back prose.

It begins with a pair of friends, both highly-strung in different directions, on holiday in Mexico City. Wilma, self-dramatising and something of an emotional leech, picks away at Amy, who is repressed and nervous, cruelly dropping hints that she is having an affair with Amy’s husband, Rupert. When Wilma goes flying from a hotel balcony in an apparent suicide, Rupert comes to take Amy back to the US. Before her brother, Gill, can see her, however, she has some sort of breakdown and disappears to New York. Believing that Rupert has killed her, Gill hires a private detective, Dodd, whose investigation becomes the story’s main thread thereafter.

The best parts of this book are those dealing with Dodd, and the portrait of the Mexican hotel.

Dodd is first presented as a grasping, vaguely repellent cynic, but becomes more appealing as we spend time with him: he is right to treat Gill with disdain, it turns out, and is gruffly sympathetic towards those who really deserve it, such as Rupert’s lovelorn secretary, Miss Burton, who goes to dance classes purely for the sake of human contact.

My first instinct was that the portrayal of the hotel was, frankly, racist: the staff are dirty, smelly and conniving, and they steal. Staff are urged to tell American visitors the tap water is the cleanest in the city, though the manager himself only drinks bottled water. Consuela, the chambermaid, uses towels to mop her own sweat and then lays them out for guests. Every service and facility is an opportunity overcharge. True to life or not, it’s pretty sour stuff.

But then something interesting happens: for large stretches of the opening section especially, we find ourselves in Consuela’s head, and she becomes a full and fascinating character, more sympathetic than most of the Americans. She both loves and hates her boyfriend, a layabout American conman; she despairs at his gambling, but also believes one day it will make her rich; and her treatment of hotel guests is half pride, half class warfare.

The book’s reputation, insofar as it has one, relies on the twist. I don’t think Millar is a great writer – or, at least, can’t see that she put huge care into this particular book, which feels as if it was written in a week – but I do think she did something clever with the plot, laying a trap for the mystery-literate reader – surely it was Amy who went off the balcony, not Wilma, right? I thought I’d solved the case from page three and so the ending really did surprise me.

What does this book tell us about 1959? That the nerve-jangling sound of jet engines overhead was part of a new cold war reality. That America was just realising it had become an imperial power. And that sex hadn’t quite broken free of its leash.