Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Set in a small town in Michigan in the midst of a snowy winter, Vanish in an Instant (1952) is a tightly plotted murder mystery in the classic hardboiled style. Its author, Margaret Millar, was a Canadian-American crime writer, best known for her 1955 novel Beast in View, winner of the Edgar Allen Poe award for best novel. If Vanish is anything to go by then that award was fully justified; it’s a very compelling mystery, full of twists and turns with plenty to keep the reader guessing right up to the very end.

As the novel opens, Mrs Hamilton, a wealthy and rather bossy matriarch, has just arrived in town accompanied by her paid companion, Alice Dwyer. Mrs Hamilton is on a mission, namely to do whatever it takes to get her daughter, Virginia, out of jail following her alleged involvement in the murder of a local married man, Claude Margolis. As far as the police are concerned, Virginia – Margolis’ mistress – is the prime suspect, especially as she was found wandering about near her lover’s cottage shortly after the stabbing.

However…Virginia was blind drunk at the time of the incident, and her recollections of the evening’s events are hazy at best. Even though she was discovered covered in blood, Virginia has no idea whether she actually killed Margolis or not – she may have done it, but she isn’t sure. Neither is Meecham, the bright lawyer Virginia’s husband, Paul, has hired to help.

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing the yellow wool dress and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes. (p. 30)

To complicate matters further, a local man named Earl Loftus appears on the scene and confesses to committing the murder. On the surface, Loftus seems to have no apparent connections to Margolis, but his account of the crime is convincing enough to persuade the police of his involvement. Virginia is released and reunited with her family, leaving the police to tie up the case against the mysterious Loftus. Meecham, however, remains unconvinced of Loftus’ guilt, fearing that Mrs Hamilton has paid the loner to take the rap. As it turns out, Loftus is dying from leukaemia, so he has little to lose by standing in for the killer – quite the contrary in fact as his family would stand to gain financially from Mrs Hamilton’s payout.

As he continues to investigate Loftus and the various connections to the case, Meecham becomes increasingly convinced that things are not as clear-cut as they might appear. Inch by inch, the view widens to include other individuals connected to Loftus: namely his devoted landlady, Mrs Hearst, and her husband, Jim; his alcoholic mother, Clara Loftus, a genuinely tragic figure; and his ex-wife, Birdie, no longer on the scene. Each character is drawn with care and attention, from the major influencers to the seemingly peripheral players in the mix.

To reveal any more of the plot would almost certainly spoil some elements of the story, but suffice it to say that it remains suitably gripping and intriguing to the end. However, what really sets this mystery apart from others in the genre is the character development, aided by the attention to detail Millar brings to this aspect of the novel. Very few of these individuals are as straightforward or as ‘black-and-white’ as they might seem on the surface; instead, their personalities are nuanced with shades of grey and degrees of ambiguity that reflect a degree of reality.

There’s a great deal of hard work and diligence in Meecham’s quest for the truth, qualities that reward his persistence in following up the loose ends. Millar also brings a strong sense of humanity to the lawyer’s character, an understanding of the harsh realities of life for some of the individuals involved. Moreover, there’s a lovely dynamic between Meecham and Alice Dwyer, Mrs Hamilton’s desirable young companion, almost reminiscent of a screwball comedy-romance at times, such is the nature of their pitch-perfect dialogue.

The small-town atmosphere is nicely captured too, adding a sense of unease and darkness to the story, somethings that help to reflect the ‘feel’ of the place.

In the summer the red bricks of the courthouse were covered with dirty ivy and in the winter with dirty snow. The building had been constructed on a large square in what was originally the center of town. But the town had moved westward, abandoned the courthouse like an ugly stepchild, leaving it in the east end to fend for itself among the furniture warehouses and service stations and beer-and-sandwich cafés. (p. 26)

In summary, this is a sharply plotted, absorbing mystery – ideal reading for the winter months.

He walked out the door and down the hall. He didn’t look back but he knew she was watching him. He could feel her eyes on the back of her neck, cold and painful as the touch of ice. (p. 222)

My thanks to John, who has been encouraging me to read this author for a while.

Final note: As some of you may know, Margaret Millar was married to Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries are amongst my favourite novels in the genre – I’ve written about some of them here.

Vanish in an Instant is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

42 thoughts on “Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

  1. Radz Pandit

    A great review Jacqui and I am now very keen to read this one. I am especially sold on the fact that its unsettling and an absorbing mystery.

    I am quite a fan of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels. I haven’t read all yet, but the few I have were superb when it came to descriptions of California and in the way they were tightly plotted.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this, especially as you’re a fan of Macdonald. It’s a neat little mystery with enough depth in the portrayal of Meecham to give it another dimension. I really warmed to him as a character.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure, Susan. Maybe…but then again maybe not. Even though Meecham is a lawyer, he’s very much in the style of a classic private eye – hence the hardboiled ‘feel’ of the book.

      Have you tried anything by Dorothy B. Hughes? I think she might be more your cup of tea than Margaret Millar. In a Lonely Place is excellent, as is The Expendable Man. Even the crime fiction sceptics in my book group enjoyed these two, so you’d be opting for a safer bet?

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          While there’s a crime near the beginning of The Expendable Man, it isn’t really a straight ‘crime’ novel as such. If anything, it’s more a fight for justice as the central character tries to clear his name. I think you’d like it, particularly as the characterisation is pretty compelling and strong.

          Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    The characters sound very well crafted. Like A Life in Books, I have not read much in this genre, but I would like to delve into it. It also sounds like this would make a good film.

    Reply
  3. Naomi

    This is an author that I hope to get around to some day. Glad to hear your positive thoughts on this book. I love the cover!
    I didn’t know who she was married to – interesting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – she’s Canadian by birth! Definitely one for your list, then. I think this would be a great one to try. As far as I know, it’s considered to be one of her best (although Beast in View gets a lot of attention). The cover’s great isn’t it? And I like the fact that the colour scheme differs from the conventional expectations of a crime novel. The cream background really stands out against the dark blues, reds and blacks of most books in this genre.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting, especially as it’s the one she most famous for! I really liked this, I must admit – particularly the character of Meecham as he came across as very smart and personable.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        I think The Beast In View must have been so much more impressive/surprising in its day. I enjoyed the others more as well. (There is a sweet little series of omnibus reprints from Syndicate Books, with a series of images on the spine that line up together nicely on the shelf to make a tableau picture, for those who don’t mind the fine small print in such editions – dark, if small, in this instance.) Looking forward to hearing more as you read through her books!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s interesting about the response to Beast in View back in the day. Maybe it hasn’t stood the test of time as well as some of her others. Do you have a favourite or one in particular you would recommend I try next? (PS That omnibus series sounds lovely – a highly collectable set!)

          Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. This sounds wonderfully noir, and as you say the added element of above-the-norm characterisation and good writing must lift it head and shoulders above some writing in the genre. I’ve heard of Millar but not read her – will keep her on the radar! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yep, there’s enough good stuff here to keep it interesting – not just in the mystery which is very twisty, but in the characterisation itself. There’s just enough nuance to give it that edge. Definitely worth considering when you run out of BLCCs to read!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this one if you have it in your collection. There’s a bit of mileage in the character of Meecham, in particular. I don’t know if he appears in any of her other novels, but I’d be open to reading some of them if he does.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d be very interested to see how you get on with this. Hopefully you’ll prefer it Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which I know you found a bit out of synch with your tastes!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          She doesn’t use as many similes as Chandler, that’s for sure. I’m hoping you’ll find it somewhere between the two (Chandler and Hughes/Highsmith).

          Reply
  5. 1streading

    As you know, I’m a fan of Ross MacDonald – in fact I read The Goodbye Look just recently. Hopefully I can pick up a copy of this soon – and I hope Pushkin will reprint some more of her work as they’ve down with other authors.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d enjoy this one, Grant. It’s an enjoyable little mystery, plus the writing is crisp and to the point. I’d like to see more Millar from Pushkin Vertigo too; she’s a good addition to their list which sometimes feels a little male-heavy!

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    It does sound good. I have one of her novels and one of Ross MacDonald’s novels on my piles somewhere. I couldn’t tell you which ones as I bought them ages ago. I should really stop buying new books with all the great ones I’ve already have.
    Do you feel the writing of her and her husband is similar?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Of the two, I’d say Ross Macdonald is closer to the classic hardboiled style of Chandler and Hammett, especially in the early days when he was still settling into a rhythm. (The mid-late books in his Lew Archer series are generally considered to be stronger than the early ones, but even the first two or three are worth reading. I really liked The Drowning Pool, number two in the series). I don’t think Millar is quite as wedded to similes as Macdonald or Chandler – or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t recall seeing as many in Vanish. Her prose is pretty crisp and to the point, which makes it a tight read.

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    Haven’t read her for years, but I do remember How Like an Angel made a deep impression on me. That was a great depiction of a cult a long time before they became mainstream. I agree she is worth republishing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I was pleasantly surprised by this, a well-plotted mystery with very little down time. Plus, as you say, it’s ideal for a snow day. What better way to spend to chilly afternoon than to curl up with a good book? I’d definitely be open to considering others by Millar, especially if they’re in a similar vein.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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