31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 3: “The People Across the Canyon” by Margaret Millar

From Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense

Margaret Millar is perhaps best known as the wife of celebrated American noir writer Ross Macdonald (né Kenneth Millar). But this popular association, so prevalent in our knee-jerk patriarchal society, ignores the contribution the distaff half of the marriage partnership made to the crime genre as a novelist and short-fiction writer. (Her 1955 work Beast in View won the Edgar Award for Best Novel.) Writing in the American postwar period during the middle of the 20th century, Millar was one of a group of contemporaries – among them Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Charlotte Armstrong – who helped inaugurate and codify what we now somewhat dismissively refer to as “domestic suspense.” (The word “domestic” should always be viewed with suspicion when applied to literature; count how many times it is applied to the novels of, say, Jonathan Franzen or Richard Yates.)

As Sarah Weinman (who, like Millar, is a Canadian expat in the U.S. – the former hailing from Ottawa, the latter from Kitchener, Ontario) writes in the introduction to the 2013 anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives:

The crime genre, concerned as it is with the righting of wrongs and playing by rules, is less comfortable with blurred boundaries. It’s especially uneasy about stories that feature ordinary people, particularly women, trying to make sense of a disordered world with small stakes, where the most important worry is whether a person takes good care of her children, stands up to a recalcitrant spouse, or contends with how best to fit – or subvert – social mores.

Whether or not the taking care of children actually constitutes “small stakes,” it is true that the writers who toil in the fields of domestic suspense tend to eschew grand themes of war, politics, and history – those sweeping categories that are generally considered the preserve of great male novelists (and, as an outlier, Hilary Mantel).

“The People Across the Canyon,” which first appeared in the October 1962 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, fits within Weinman’s description of what domestic suspense entails, focused as it is on a mother’s growing concern over her daughter’s relationship with a new neighbour couple. The story also blurs boundaries in important ways, though the boundaries it smudges have less to do with gender or social standing than with the very notion of genre itself. What begins as a fairly straightforward tale in the “stranger comes to town” mode becomes increasingly odd as it progresses, until a finale that jettisons realism altogether and crosses over into the fantastical.

The basic premise of “The People Across the Canyon” is straightforward: the Borton family – Marion, Paul, and daughter Cathy – live on a six-acre lot outside the urban sprawl and bustle of the big city. When new neighbours move into the empty house situated across the canyon from their property, Cathy starts disappearing to spend time with them. The eight-year-old reports to her mother that the Smiths comprise a married couple – she is a nightclub singer and he a baseball player – who love children. As Cathy becomes more and more infatuated with the new neighbours, her mother becomes commensurately concerned, more so when Cathy’s teacher calls to report that the girl has been skipping school – presumably, Marion thinks, to spend time with the people across the canyon.

While the notion of an eight-year-old girl running away from home to play with adult strangers of any stripe would set off immediate alarm bells in 2022, in the 1950s setting of Millar’s story, Paul is so trusting – or so oblivious to any potential danger – that his only reaction is gladness his daughter “is getting acquainted with the new people.” He feels it displays a previously unseen level of “poise” on Cathy’s part. Marion’s greatest concern, meanwhile, is that the girl didn’t check in after disembarking from the school bus that brings her home at the end of the day.

On a larger scale, Millar portrays the Bortons as early adopters of a suburban lifestyle, before prefab subdivisions sprang up in ever expanding halos around most major North American metropolises. The creature comforts of upper-middle-class lifestyle – a detached home, a car, and a television – are the lynchpins of a happy existence; when Cathy returns from school one day, her mother offers to accompany her to the creek that separates the two houses, which would be a sacrifice for Marion because she would have to forego her favourite quiz show. When she first notices activity at the house across the canyon, Marion interrupts Paul by turning off the television, an indication that “she had something on her mind which she wanted to transfer to his.”

But the couple’s comfortable existence is not impervious to incipient unease where their daughter is concerned. As Cathy’s infatuation with the new neighbours deepens into a nascent obsession, doubts begin to creep in on the part of both mother and father. Marion is the first to worry, recognizing the improbability of the Smiths occupying the professions Cathy claims they do: “[T]here isn’t a nightclub within fifty miles, or a professional ball club within two hundred.” (Her husband’s insouciant reply: “She probably misunderstood.”) When Marion spots a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes like her daughter emerging from the Smiths’ house, she hurries to retrieve a pair of binoculars, the better to spy on the mysterious neighbours. (And acting utterly oblivious to the irony contained in her first statement about the new arrivals: “There goes our privacy.”)

Marion’s sliding notion about the merits of privacy – presumably one of the things that attracted the Bortons to such a sprawling and remote property in the first place – is only one of the sharply satirical elements in Millar’s story. The Smiths’ stated professions – an entertainer in a nightclub, with its whiff of sin and danger, and the all-American calling of a pro ballplayer – are as emblematic of American social aspiration and fascination as their surname is generic. (It could only have been better had Millar gone with Jones, as in “keeping up with the.”) When Marion takes Cathy into town on a grocery shopping expedition, the young girl glimpses the Smiths in a fancy sports car, another element – along with the ubiquitous television – of postwar conspicuous consumption.

As the story proceeds to its weird and supremely unsettling conclusion, it becomes clear that Cathy is hiding something. When she sees the couple in the sports car, the colour drains from her face, but her eyes glitter “quite as if they’d seen a miracle.” Marion asks if Mrs. Smith lets Cathy put her feet up on the furniture and Cathy tells her mother “truthfully” that the other woman does not prohibit such behaviour. These small linguistic clues, peppered into the second half of the story, tilt in the direction of a child who knows more than she is telling, and likely is much savvier about the nature of the new arrivals than are the adults who are putatively in charge of her.

It is not incidental that the Smiths move in across the canyon from the Bortons. That is, a gulf – both physical and existential – separates the two families and their respective abodes. Paul has created a bridge across the water out of two fallen trees, but in a metaphorical sense, it is Cathy who provides the bridge in the narrative. In the story’s bizarre and unexpected final scene, it becomes apparent that the girl has adopted an uncritical devotion to a particular version of the American dream – a version spurred by television and consumerism that her parents recognize only after it is too late to save their family from its pernicious clutches.

THIS POST HAS BEEN CORRECTED. An earlier version of this post misstated the birthplace of Margaret Millar. It was Kitchener, Ontario, not Kingston.

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 3: “The People Across the Canyon” by Margaret Millar