01 August 2013

Margaret Millar's Michigan Murder Mystery



Vanish in an Instant
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, [1953]

Roughly halfway through Vanish in an Instant, protagonist Eric Meecham gives pause:
He wanted to hear more about Loftus and Birdie, as if Loftus's relationship with his wife and mother might explain more about the murder of Margolis. Yet he was sure there was no link except the psychological one – the effect of A and B on C had determined C's conduct toward D.
I was right there with him. In Margaret Millar's mysteries we come to care not so much about crimes committed – here a married playboy is stabbed several times in the neck with a hunting knife – as we do the characters. Their lives hold the greater intrigue.

A lawyer, Meecham has been hired to defend Virginia Barkeley, the sole suspect in the murder of Margolis, the butchered playboy. She was slip sliding drunkenly through slushy snow not far from the cooling corpse when police picked her up. A California girl living in Arbana (read: Ann Arbour), Virginia is far from home and out of her element. Her flat-roofed house of redwood and fieldstone sits in snow and ice; dead plants can be viewed from both sides of its enormous plate glass windows. Icicles fringe the barbecue pit.

The California-style bungalow is as much a mistake as her one-year-old marriage to staid medical doctor Paul Barkeley; Virginia's mother would tell you as much. She's flown in from the West Coast, paid companion Alice Dwyer in tow, to set things right. No need, really, because a leukemia-stricken odd bird named Earl Loftus soon confesses to the whole thing. "Since I was going to die anyway," Loftus tells Meecham, "I thought I would take someone with me – rid the world of someone it would be better off without, some incorrigible criminal, perhaps, or a dangerous politician. But when the time and opportunity came, it was Margolis. I wish it could've been someone more important. Margolis was very third-rate."

I was reminded of the dying Dennis Potter on Rupert Murdoch:


Earl's suffering is not just physical. As his health deteriorates, the ghost of a failed fleeting marriage haunts, and worries over the alcoholic mother he's been supporting become unbearable. The pitiable, self-confessed killer is far from alone, Vanish in an Instant is crowded with suffering souls. Have sympathy for Dr Barkeley, who has hired Meecham to defend his straying barfly of a wife. Spare some thought for Earl's aforementioned mother, a once respectable woman who dove into drink after being abandoned by her spouse. Then there's Mrs Margolis, who having accepted her husband's philandering, must now come to terms with his murder. We don't even see the Margolis children, but know that they too are in a bad state; just look at the lady snowman left on their front lawn:  
One of her charcoal eyes had fallen out of her melting socket. She had a witch's nose made out of a carrot and a moist beet-mouth, and stuck in her chest was a long dripping icicle that gleamed in the light like a stiletto with a jeweled handle. The snow lady seemed to be aware of her wound; her blurred beet-mouth was anguished, and her single eye stared helplessly into the night.

Vanish in an Instant is a horribly dark and depressing novel, replete with failed marriages, yet in the midst of all the despair love blossoms between Meecham and Alice Dwyer.

Why?

I suggest an editor's influence. I suggest that there was pressure to inject just a bit of hope and light into an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak novel. How else to explain the sudden, unexpected declarations of love that mar chapter fifteen (of twenty-five)?

Would I believe in a love at first sight?

Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time... but not like this:
    "Oh, Meecham, I love you."
     "At this point I think I think I might kiss you, if I didn't have one foot in the grave."
     "I didn't say you have one foot in the grave. I said you weren't very young and adjustable and—"
     "I accept your apology."
     He took her in his arms and kissed her for a long time, feeling that he had never kissed a girl before, it was so strange and perfect.
     She looked very solemn. "I will love you forever, Meecham."
This is the very worst I've seen of Millar's writing. Lasting three or so pages, I could stomach it, and I'm betting you can, too, because his is one of the finest Canadian novels of the 'fifties.

It's out of print. There has never been a Canadian edition.

Now that's depressing.


Trivia: The title was inspired by Yeats' "Blood and the Moon":
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow            that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme;
None of the translations use the title: French (La femme de sa mort), German (Stiller Trost), Italian (La morte viene da lontano), Spanish (La trelaraña de nieve) and Portuguese (Vida por vida).


More trivia: Arbana serves as the setting of The Dark Tunnel (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1944), debut novel by husband Kenneth Millar (a/k/a Ross Macdonald).

Object: A compact 224-page paperback with cover illustration by Griffith Foxley.

Access: Though more than two decades out-of-print, used copies can be had cheap – beginning at a buck for the 1989 International Polygonics mass market. But really, no one wants anything that looks like this in their collection.


The novel features no such scene, and nothing so silly. The gothic romance take of the 1967 Lancer edition errs in presenting a house that does not appear in the novel.


The 1974 Avon and 1990 Penguin editions make the very same mistake. Best stick with the 1953 Dell – decent copies can be had for three or four dollars.

The 1952 Random House first edition isn't terribly common, but it isn't expensive either. A Fine copy in Near Fine dust jacket is currently listed online at US$25.

It appears that just six Canadian libraries, academic and public, have the novel in their holdings. The cheap paperback edition held by the Kitchener Public Library, serving the fine folks of Millar's hometown, is non-circulating.

4 comments:

  1. Have yet to read this one. I wonder if it will match the bleakness of THE HORIZONTAL MAN which wins my prize for the bleakest crime novel written by a woman.

    The Dell cover reminds me very much of the cover for Helen Nielesen's THE KIND MAN. Looks like the same artist. He's good with knives.

    Most of the IPL covers are horrid. The one above is dreadful. Looks the like the artist mixed up FIRE WILL FREEZE with THE CORPSE IN THE SNOWMAN by Nicholas Blake. Did you ever see Nicky Zann's work on these IPL books? The giant rabbits in top hats he did for the Clayton Rawson books are the worst of the lot.

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    1. John, I remember reading your good piece on The Horizontal Man. Despite the bleakness, the voyeur in me is attracted by the possibility that the novel was written as an act of revenge on her adulterous husband. Must add that the author photo you present depicts a woman not to be crossed.

      I think you may be right about Griffith Foxley and The Kind Man. I know nothing about him, really, but what I see points to an odd career. It appears that when not producing sexy and violent paperback covers, he was working on illustrations to be used in Sunday schools.

      The IPL covers are horrid, nearly always committing what I think is one of the greatest sins: depicting a scene thgat does not take place in the book. After their Fire Will Freeze and An Air that Kills, I knew better than to expect a bloody knife sticking out of a snowman... or whatever that thing is supposed to be.

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    2. Just got home and checked my copy of The Kind Man. Artwork is credited to Griffith Foxley on the copyright page. I knew it. Why can't I paid for this kind of work? [...grumble, grumble...]

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    3. I hear ya, John. i hear ya.

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