Reviewed by Harriet
Why had I never heard of Margaret Millar until I spotted this reprint by Pushkin Vertigo? Because, I suppose, she was one of those people who have their moment of fame and then sink without trace. In fact Millar, who was born in Canada, had a successful career, wrote 27 novels, and won several prizes before her death in 1994 at the age of 79. She was married to the successful novelist known as Ross Macdonald.
Vanish in an Instant was first published in 1952. Set mainly in the fictional small town of Arbana, Michigan, the novel starts with the arrival at the nearest airport of the wealthy Mrs Hamilton, accompanied by Alice, her young companion. Mrs Hamilton has flown in from California to deal with a situation that’s arisen concerning her daughter Virginia. She’s expecting her son-in-law to meet her but instead she is greeted by a well-dressed young man who introduces himself as Eric Meecham, a lawyer. He’s been hired, he tells her, to represent Virginia, who is in jail.
‘But how can they hold an innocent girl?’
Meecham picked up the question carefully, as if it was loaded.’The fact is, she hasn’t claimed to be innocent’
‘What – what does she claim?’
‘Nothing. She won’t deny anything, won’t admit anything, won’t, period. She’s….’. He groped for a word and out of a number that occurred to him he chose the least offensive. ‘She’s a little difficult’.
‘She’s frightened, the poor child. When she’s frightened she’s always difficult’.
It transpires that Virginia had been on a night out with her admirer, possibly her lover, Claude Margolis, who has been found dead with multiple stab wounds in his neck. Virginia, passed out, had been discovered in the same room, with Margolis’s blood on her clothes. She neither denies nor admits to the murder, because she was drunk and can’t remember what happened. Things are looking bad for her until Meecham encounters a man by the name of Loftus, who claims he committed the crime. He also has blood on his clothes, and is able to describe the scene of the crime and a conversation which took place immediately beforehand. So Virginia is released and Loftus is charged. But rather than being put in a cell, he is confined in the prison wing of the local hospital – he is suffering from leukaemia and has only a few days to live.
Meecham visits Loftus in hospital. He likes the man and would like to believe in his innocence, but all the odds seem stacked against him. He wants to communicate with him, but ‘the words he knew were inadequate, as all words are inadequate in the immanence of death’. Meecham is certain that there’s complicated story behind all this and sets out to investigate. He meets Loftus’s landlady Emily Hearst, who is clearly in love with him despite having a rather unpleasant husband, and travels to a nearby town for a painful visit to his alcoholic mother. And along the way he and Mrs Hamilton’s pretty companion Alice fall in love.
This is an extraordinarily stylish and skilful novel. Millar creates wholly credible characters and describes them perceptively both inside and out. Here’s Jim Hearst, Loftus’s landlady’s husband:
A half-length away he looked quite distinguished and physically powerful. But as he came nearer the shaft of light exposed the fraud like an efficient camera. His body was running to fat and his face was disfigured by lines of indecision and self doubt, ambition gone sour and life gone sour. His pale eyes moved constantly back and forth, like birds at sea looking for a piece of kelp to rest on. He was one of those men Meecham recognised as a common type: the big boy whose mind and emotions had never been able to keep up with his maturing body.
Although Meecham is a lawyer, he is shunted rather against his will to act as a private investigator, but his role is a complicated one. Initially he is working for Mrs Hamilton, who wants him to prove Virginia’s innocence, but he isn’t at all sure that she’s not actually guilty. What he’d really like to do is exonerate Loftus, who he is certain did not commit the crime. But why does the man persist in asserting his own guilt? Loftus doesn’t seem to need money as he has some of his own, but what possible other reason could there be? Meecham’s solution to the mystery comes mainly though his own deductions, and I certainly didn’t guess the true identity of the perpetrator. As a lawyer, he makes a great P.I. He shares some of the thoughtfulness and worldliness of Philip Marlowe but is very much his own man. I’d like to have met him again in other novels, but as far as I can tell this was his only appearance. Let’s hope more of Millar’s novels will be reprinted. She well deserves to come out of the shadows.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Margaret Millar, Vanish in an Instant (Pushkin Vertigo, 2018). 978-1782274797, 254pp, paperback original.
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