Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar (1952)
Today is Margaret Millar Day for your merry little band of Friday's Forgotten Books bloggers. Millar, of course, was a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, author of over two dozen books, including a memoir and a posthumous collection of short stories. Most readers today recognize her (if at all) as the wife of Kenneth Millar ("Ross MacDonald," the creator of PI Lew Archer), not realizing that she crafted some of the best mystery novels of the Twentieth Century.
Vanish in an Instant was her thirteenth book, and began as a suspense novel, quickly moved into a murder mystery, and by the fourth chapter morphed into a psychological study of dependency -- both physical and emotional -- all the while keeping the reader quickly turning pages.
We begin with the rich and imperious Mrs. Hamilton and her newly hired companion, Alice Dwyer, arriving in the University town of Arbana, some twenty miles west of Detroit. Mrs. Hamilton's married daughter Virginia is being held in the brutal murder of Claude Margolis, the man believed to be her lover. Virginia was found, drunk and covered in blood, wandering through the snow a quarter mile from the murder scene. Virginia's husband, Paul Barkeley, has hired local lawyer Eric Meecham to defend his wife. Virginia, however, refuses to speak to Meecham -- or anyone else --until her mother arrives. Even then, it appears almost certain that Virginia is guilty.
Then comes a strange-looking, soft-spoken man who readily confesses to the murder. Earl Loftus is dying of leukemia, and his confession has the ring of truth and is so detailed that the police cannot ignore it. Knowing that he was dying, Loftus decided to do the world a favor and "rid the world of someone it would be better off without, some incorrigible criminal, perhaps, or a dangerous politician. But when the time and the opportunity came. it was Margolis. I wish it could have been someone more important. Margolis was very third-rate."
With the confession, Virginia was released and Meecham's involvement in the case should have been over. Meecham, however, was persuaded by Loftus to bring some letters and his about $700 in savings to his mother. Before Meecham could act on the request, Loftus committed suicide, hanging himself in his hospital room.
Meecham then begins a search for understanding Loftus and his crime, leading to revelations both expected and unexpected. With scapal-like clarity, Millar lays bear the destructive dependencies of almost every character in the book, bringing the novel and its puzzle to a logical and satisfying conclusion.
Millar proves herself once again to be one of the best mystery and suspense novelists of her time.
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