“We may never know the truth of what happened. Maybe there isn’t any whole truth about anything, just a lot of versions, of different colors and different flavors, like ice cream, and you pick the most palatable.”
The holidays are a time to be with family, but Mrs. Hamilton never imagined she would be visiting hers in jail. Her daughter Virginia has been accused of an unspeakable crime, and she is a suspect that only a mother could love. Even Virginia’s own lawyer, Eric Meecham, dislikes his spoiled client and her overbearing mother. Little does he realize how complicated his first murder case is about to become.
Vanish in an Instant is a melancholy tale about failures of love, which makes it perfect for Christmas. This is a crime novel with no heroes and no real villains, only human beings. Even those whose actions are the most destructive seem more pathetic than evil. The small-town Michigan setting, far from being bucolic, is a world of dirty snow and bedraggled Christmas decorations, where even the snowmen come to bad ends. Though the characters and downbeat winter atmosphere are first-rate, Margaret Millar devotes so much space to their personal stories that the actual murder comes off as an afterthought.
There are only two certainties about the crime. The first is that local lothario Claude Margolis was stabbed to death. The second is that Virginia Barkeley was out with Claude on the night of his murder. Virginia insists that she and Claude were just friends. She has no memory of the crime. Her mother and husband Paul say they believe her. As Meecham observes, however, they are used to indulging Virginia’s whims—not to mention cleaning up the consequences.
Virginia herself remains a fascinating enigma. Everyone in her life has strong reactions to Virginia, a fact she herself is well aware of. “Carney thinks I’m bad, and Paul thinks I’m a fool. They’re both very good people, virtuous people. But it’s hard to live with anyone who sets up standards you can’t ever reach.” At various times, she can appear manipulative, pitiful, or callous. Yet it’s hard to get a handle on her real feelings. Her restlessness is the one quality that leaps off the page, even when she’s not saying a word, and perhaps that eternal dissatisfaction, the way she craves change for its own sake, is the key to her personality. One of her few unguarded moments catches her reaction to a freight train headed west. She doesn’t know where the train is going, only that it is going somewhere else.
The caboose slid past, the barriers rose and Virginia sat back in the seat, her eyes shining, her breathing accelerated. The train had excited her—its possibilities, its destination, its very movement. Impulsively, she raised her hand and waved at the caboose as it disappeared down the track.
Mrs. Hamilton points out that her daughter has no reason to be unhappy in such a lovely home, but that’s not what Meecham sees. To him, the Barkeley home is stifling, an overstuffed hothouse. “The whole effect of the room was one of impossible beauty and excess, as if the person who lived there lived in a dream.” He wonders whether Virginia is going from one prison to another, both of them, perhaps, of her own making.
Most of the novel centers around Meecham’s efforts to locate and interview potential witnesses. These scenes exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of Vanish in an Instant. Interesting in themselves, many of these interludes could stand alone as short stories.
She was always death against liquor. She never had a drink until she was nearly fifty. My father had run out on her by that time, and one day she went out and bought a bottle of wine to calm her nerves. It happened right away. One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her, the world vanished in that instant. She has never seen it since. She never will again.
Millar is always willing to take detours with her characters, but at times Vanish in an Instant wanders too far afield. A number of Meecham’s witness interviews share a sense of disconnection, as if they could be carved out of the novel without affecting its outcome. Each story is enjoyable on its own and adds to to the mosaic of well-drawn characters. The difficulty is that they don’t always advance the murder investigation very much. The most compelling vignettes are the ones that achieve both goals, such as a chilling glimpse into the life of Mrs. Margolis, the victim’s widow.
The worst subplot by far is Meecham’s romance with Alice, Mrs. Hamilton’s paid companion, which comes out of nowhere after only a handful of brief meetings. The reader already knows that Alice, a former teacher, took this job as a companion so she could meet men. In fact, it’s really the only thing we ever learn about her. Her desperation to get married is especially sad considering that she is only 23 years old. Meecham listens indulgently to Alice’s sentimental gushing, as if love is something slightly embarrassing that he himself is too wise to fall for. There is nothing charming about their relationship; instead, it undermines Meecham’s otherwise engaging character.
Vanish in an Instant is a powerful novel that often forgets it’s supposed to be a crime story. Margaret Millar is trying to solve a puzzle. It’s just that the murder of Claude Margolis is not the mystery she’s most interested in. Instead, Millar explores the destructive powers of love. Mothers and children, husbands and wives, men and women…the more they love each other, the more they seem to let one another down. “Don’t you think everybody would like to be honest?” Mrs. Hamilton despairs. “Most people—can’t afford the price. They can just afford to be a little honest here and a little honest there, and in front of certain people.” For these people, murder is only the symptom, not the real problem.
[…] I think the first half of the story is much stronger than the second, as in the second half it is much more of a story in which we are told information, rather than allowed to figure things out. But to end on more of a positive note I think Millar has a strong way with words, conveying so much more than a literal description of people, leaving you with very memorable impressions.
It’s probably fair to say that Millar is revered among crime fiction fans, but not well-known outside that circle. She wrote sharp thrillers, dark and serious, with normal suburban people thrust into dangerous and difficult situations.
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.
Margaret Millar’s storytelling is a bit of a slow burn, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere of this small town in deep winter. Millar explores her characters well, they are people who are ill, lonely or unhappy – and the worlds they inhabit aren’t always comfortable.
Vanish in an Instant is available in the US and Canada from Syndicate Books, as either a standalone ebook or in the paperback omnibus Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith. In the UK, it is available in paperback from Pushkin Press.