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.