Margaret Millar’s lost crime novel Vanish in an Instant has returned and it’s a killer read

What I love about Margaret Millar is that you know she’s playing with you but she only lets you get close enough to see the shadows of her deception.

As you turn each page you can make out the familiar figure of a murder mystery but the detail eludes you until she’s ready to bring her narrative out of the shadows. It’s a tease. Her masterpiece Beast in View is built around that same bloody burlesque show concept and so is the wonderful Vanish in an Instant.

As well as having a fantastic Christie-esque title for a mystery thriller, Millar’s recently rediscovered classic has the words within to sustain it in a literary capacity too. Take, for example, this chapter opener: “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 cafes.”

Not just a throwaway scene setter, it’s vivid, economic and laced with a sinner’s streak of satire that is comparable to the best of Chandler, Hammett and Millar’s own husband Ross Macdonald. This isn’t some cliched big city jaunt or an ironic slice of cookie cutter suburbia. This is down and out blue collar America with white collar criminals for punctuation. Law was once at the centre of it all but it drifted and lost its status, leaving displaced orphans in its wake. This isn’t a town of people wearing the masks of society but rather, as Millar deftly establishes with her cast, a town of people tearing at their faces when no one is looking to try to get the masks off. Millar’s world is just as textured with these ripples of doubt as O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara or Yates’ Revolutionary Road was. Even the heroes are victims but for a passerby all is well.

Millar uses her repressed locales and desperate character quirks to colour her prose with a level of human insight seldom seen in dime-store crime fiction. Another example to whet your appetite: “Her violent shaking had stopped. The very sight of the bottle steadied her: the sight of land to the seasick sailor.” It took The Lost Weekend chapters to establish the paradoxical servitude of alcoholism; Millar nailed it in a few sentences. Seasick sailors and dry lands made of whisky. That’s what makes Vanish in an Instant so compelling – Millar’s eye and how it inverts the familiar. The only real difference between her worldview and that of O’Hara and Yates is that Millar reserved a spot for a chalk outline.

And it’s a hell of a nice little mystery too. Without spoiling anything, the skinny is that there’s a murder and a prime suspect who doesn’t seem all that bothered that her lover has been killed and that she’s in the frame against overwhelming evidence. Then there’s an overbearing matriarch determined to set her free, a dogged lawyer who seems to like taking cases only to prove the cops wrong, a dying man with his own twisted connection to the deceased and many others that glide around the snowy crime scene to distract and enthral us. When she likens the snow to “crushed diamonds”; one could say the same for the prose that gives us her sparkling ensemble.

It’s bitterly ironic that Millar’s Vanish in an Instant seemed to do just that upon its original publication. Now, Pushkin Press have saved it from disappearing for good via this gorgeous reprint as part of their Pushkin Vertigo range. The cover is delicious and befit the handsomely stylish contents within. Highly recommended.

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