Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

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When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “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.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

Book 7 of 80

Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

11 thoughts on “Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

  1. I’ve always liked the way Millar created such great atmospheres in her work, FictionFan. She did that bit of darkness, if you will, quite well. And it is interesting that she created some solid female characters, rather than the stereotypical femme fatale, or damsel in distress, or simpering helpless little thing. I think that adds realism to her work, and I’m glad you liked this one.

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  2. I never heard of this author! I’m more familiar with male noir writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and Mickey Spillane. So I appreciate your review and your observation of the difference between heroines in the books by male authors and those by female authors.

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  3. I’m yet to try Millar. But interesting observation re female authors’ portrayal of women. I wonder if this was what they really believed or whether it was just to be acceptable to the audience?

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  4. Millar is a new author to me and I’m not sure you’ve convinced me I need to read her work. Parts of this sound good, but I just have too many other books that sound better! Maybe next time. 😉

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  5. I’ve not read Millar, but “clingy and pathetic” don’t sound too appealing. However, you did give this one four stars, so there must be some redeeming value in it. Not going on my TBR right now though — sorry!

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  6. Wow! What a striking insight: “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.” Would be fantastic if the rest of the book were just a pithy.

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    • I don’t remember a lot about The Listening Walls either, but I feel it was lighter than this one and had more humour in it. This one is bleaker in some ways, but not too dark to be enjoyable. Well worth reading!

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