Not surprisingly, then, Millar is more closely identified with a home turf than either Hughes or Armstrong, with many of her books set in her fictional Santa Barbara, Santa Felicia (the name is apt in its ironic promise). And yet, since many of her best works, including The Cannibal Heart (1949), The Fiend (1964) and Banshee (1983) inhabit the circumscribed world of children, the landmarks that predominate are less city-specific than part of the generic, eucalyptus-scented landscape of California’s coastal suburbs, with their brushy canyons and vast manicured playgrounds, and all the edgy intersections of civilization and wilderness.
"He remembered it all now, the boarding kennels behind the scraggly pittosporum hedge and the grade school a few hundred yards to the south. He remembered the children taking the back way to school because it was shorter and more exciting, teetering along the tracks with flailing arms, waiting until the final split second to jump down into the brush before the freight train roared past." — from The Fiend.
Millar is a sharp observer. She knows how the muscle memory of the elderly can persist long after thought has gone. Millar’s husband was seriously incapacitated with Alzheimer’s at the time Banshee was written: "He tied excellent knots in things, he repaired doll furniture, cleaned dogs’ ears and removed foxtails from their paws." Subservient to character, her writing is essentially self-effacing, a far cry, in other words, from noir’s insistent neon phrasing and billboard-like descriptions. And yet, as an author, Millar is tougher than any hard-boiled dick, because less sentimental. She’ll even kill off her protagonist, and an intriguing child at that, if it serves her story. In Banshee, an 8-year-old girl disappears only to be found dead in a secluded canyon near her home after months of futile searching. Suspicion swirls around every male in the community who is too familiar with children, or too annoyed by them or too like a child himself. The discovery that the cause of death was a simple accident comes too late to prevent catastrophe.
The most disturbing darkness she uncovers in the California Eden, however, is not that children die — even in loving families, behind expensive gates, or under the watchful eyes of well-paid housekeepers. It’s that they are capable themselves of intentional acts with horrible, though wholly unintended, consequences. In Millar’s books childhood and youth become the ultimate noir terrain, a place where innocence and amorality blur, where the paradox posed by the golden landscape is mirrored in even more terrifying terms. Can something so beautiful, her novels ask, that has such deathly effects on those who care for it, truly be said to be blameless? And since, in the case of children, it can, how do we live with the knowledge of unmeant pain — and keep them from blaming themselves? The theme had particular resonance for Millar: Her own daughter was convicted of vehicular homicide at 17. Indeed, in their careful detailing of children’s perceptions, Millar’s novels are in themselves a kind of parenting, acts of loving vigilance that are, in the end, as imperfectly protective as a good neighborhood, a school library, or fresh air and sunshine.
If, in the Cold War era’s weird convection of economic optimism and percolating paranoia, the chiaroscuro populism of classic noir seemed seditious to some, ã to others it was merely out of step and a little clunky — like a ’40s wedgie in the age of the fashionably slender heel. Women, faced with a cultural mandate to get back to the hearth once the war effort was over, took their compensation not only in the form of sumptuous skirts and avocado-colored appliances, but in a kind of defiant frivolity.
Charlotte Armstrong was definitely a partisan of the slender heel and froufrou overkill. Indeed, reading her, the most conventional of these three noiresses, it is often impossible to shake the sense of being trapped in a Doris Day movie. The tap-tap-tap of perky, piquant observations is so much the rule that occasionally one yearns for a nice, boring macho slug fest, just to slow the pace down. So the fact that Armstrong too registers the cold blue shadow cast by Southern California’s sunny promise — or more precisely, perhaps, given her preoccupation with old houses, the termite-riddled lath under the glistening stucco — is a kind of testimony. Under the relentless domestic propaganda of the Betty Crocker decade, noir was finding a natural if unexpected outlet in women’s work.
Like Hughes and Millar, Armstrong was an out-of-towner and well-educated. Born in Vulcan, Michigan, she attended the University of Wisconsin and got her B.A. from Barnard. In addition to her life as Mrs. Jack Lewi of Glendale, mother of three, she wrote plays and a dozen or so novels as Armstrong, and others under the name Jo Valentine.
Armstrong’s turf, in novels such as Catch-as-Catch-Can and Dream of Fair Woman, is a recognizable map of bouffant-era Los Angeles — from the perpetually shadowed pseudo-baronial drawing rooms of dusty Los Feliz mansions to the peeling-paint porches on the cul-de-sacs left by intruding freeways from Atwater to Frogtown. Or from the unctuousness of a mid-Wilshire restaurant, with its fashion shows in the private dining room, to the temple of one of the city’s thousands of nameless denominations, all polished wood and floor cushions, whose hilltop perch has been undermined by the excavation of a supermarket parking lot.