Saturday, 24 November 2018
MARGARET MILLAR - VANISH IN AN INSTANT (1952)
Virginia Barkeley is a nice, well brought-up girl. So what is she doing wandering through a snow storm in the middle of the night and covered in someone else's blood?
When Claude Margolis' body is found a quarter of a mile away with half-a-dozen stab wounds to the neck, suddenly Virginia doesn't seem like such a nice girl after all. Her only hope is Meecham, the cynical small-town lawyer hired as her defence. But how can he believe in Virginia's innocence when even she can't be sure what happened that night? And when the answer seems to fall into his lap, why won't he just walk away?
My first outing with Margaret Millar, but definitely not my last after this extremely satisfying read.
Claude Margolis is stabbed to death. Virginia Barkeley is found nearby covered in blood and confused. Virginia doesn't know what happened, she might have done it, but can't remember. Virginia's husband, Paul thinks she might have done it as well. Virginia's mother, Mrs Hamilton rushes to town and hires a lawyer Eric Meecham to help Virginia. Another man, Earl Loftus then confesses to the crime.
Virginia is in the clear, but Meecham like a dog with a bone, won't let it go and continues to dig, fearing that Loftus has been paid by Mrs Hamilton to take the fall. Loftus is dying from an incurable disease and shortly afterwards hangs himself in his cell. And still Meecham persists in asking questions. Millar slowly widens the cast of characters to include, Loftus' bereft landlady and shifty husband, Loftus' alcoholic mother and landlords, Virginia's husband who we only saw fleetingly initially, as well as his staff and Mrs Hamilton's travelling companion, Alice.
In the end we get most if not all of the answers Meecham is seeking, but it's the journey with Meecham that I enjoyed so much. There's a doggedness and a tenacity to his pursuit of answers, but it's done with such gentleness and humanity and with great consideration for the frailty and suffering and pain of others, that you can't help but be feel that sympathy yourself to all involved, including the guilty.
Along the way he has time to appreciate the charms of Mrs Hamilton's young companion ...
Then he turned his head and looked at Alice.........Some day, some remote day when he had surplus time and money, he might go to see her. She might be married, by that time, married and with a couple of children; a placid contented matron, shopping, going to the movies, lying in the sun. This projection into the future was so vivid, his sense of loss so acute, that he felt a tide of rage rise in him, rise and ebb, leaving a taste of salt.
You can't help but wish them a happy ever after, when the attraction proves mutual.
Superb writing, superb plotting, hugely sympathetic characters - even the rich mother who thinks money can solve everything, wonderful insights into the human heart, great observations, and I got bamboozled at the death, with the outcome - incorrectly guessing the guilty at least twice along the way.
4.5 from 5
Margaret Millar wrote over twenty five novels in her lifetime, which happily leaves me plenty more to discover. She may help cure me of my aversion to pre-1970s books.
Read in November, 2018
Published - 1952 (republished by Pushkin Vertigo 2018)
Page count - 256
Source - review copy from publisher (thanks to Tabitha Pelly)
Format - paperback