Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar


published 1952


Margaret Millar



The women’s section of the cell-block was empty except for Virginia. Miss Jennings unlocked the door. ‘Here’s that man again, Mrs Barkeley.’

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing yellow, and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes.

She raised her head and gave him a long unfriendly stare that reminded him of Mrs Hamilton, though there was no physical resemblance between the mother and daughter.

‘Good morning, Mrs Barkeley.’

‘Why don’t you get me out of here?’ she said flatly.

‘I’m trying.’


 
observations: I love this photograph so much, I once MADE UP a book extract to go with it.

I found it in the early days of the blog, but thought it was so specific I would never have a chance to use it – so: I had it as an avatar for a while. And, for an April Fool entry back in 2012, I wrote a  few paragraphs that could be illustrated by this photograph. That’s pretty extreme. I tried to imagine the book-within-a-book in Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent: you can see the fake entry for Fleur Talbot’s Warrender Chase here.

And finally, happily, here is a real book to go with the photo!

It’s Margaret Millar’s centenary year - she was born in February 1915 and died in 1994. She was American-Canadian, and was married to thriller writer Ross MacDonald.

It’s probably fair to say that Millar is revered among crime fiction fans, but not well-known outside that circle. She wrote sharp thrillers, dark and serious, with normal suburban people thrust into dangerous and difficult situations. She didn’t waste words, and crammed a lot of plot into relatively short books (some modern authors, stretching themselves out over 500 pages, could learn a lot from her). There was usually a very good twist or surprise at the end: one that would make you think back and work out with satisfaction that (for an example not from this book) no, X and Y had never been in the room together. She was a mistress of plotting.

In this one, a young married woman has been out on the town, drinking too much, sitting in bars with someone else’s husband. When this other man is found dead, she is the main suspect, and that’s why she’s in jail. Her mother comes to try to help her, and a young lawyer is on hand too. All kinds of unexpected things happen, starting with someone else confessing to the crime. We are shown inside various households in a small town in Michigan, following some miserable marriages and unhappy people. The town is called Arbana, and from its position would seem to be Ann Arbor.

I loved this sentence from the jail visit above:
The overhead lights went off suddenly and the feeble rays of the morning sun filtered in through the barred windows like dim hopes.
… not that most people in Millar’s books can be very hopeful.

But the books will surely live on among conoisseurs of crime fiction.

The picture (it dates from 1950, this book from 1952) is from the George Eastman House colletion. It is called Woman in Cell playing Solitaire, and is by Nickolas Murray.















18 comments:

  1. I love the work of Margaret and Ken Millar - it seems that up until the early 1960s wage was probably better known that her husband but there was a long break after THE FIEND in 1964, during which time the Macdonald boosk became bestsellers, not least due to the movie HARPER and she seems to have faded a bit ever since - really glad if the centenary brings her work back to the fore. how like an angel may be my personal favourite.

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    1. Yes she deserves more glory doesn't she? It's always hard to know how much people are remembered, especially outside our circles of crime fans, is Ross MacDonald still as well-known as he was? It would be great to have more attention for both of them, splendid writers both.

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  2. I can see why you love that 'photo, Moira! It's beautiful and more than that, powerful. I've always loved Millar's ability to tell a story about ordinary people who end up, as you say, in difficult (or worse) circumstances. I also always appreciated the fact that she keeps the reader engaged without using very much violence. It's all about the psychological interplay and the plotting.

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    1. Yes, I very much agree with you Margot, she has a very tense style, and manages to be so unsettling, but without terrible descriptions. Very clever.

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  3. I'm pleased to see the centenary of Millar's birth recognized. She is indeed revered among crime fiction fans. That said, I always recommend her to those who never read crime fiction. She has yet to disappoint. To those people, I suggest An Air that Kills, Wall of Eyes, The Iron Gates and… well, pretty much everything. As I say, she has yet to disappoint.

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    1. Thanks Brian. So many good ones, as you say, I'm planning on doing some more re-reading, and I will start with those....

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  4. I love that you found the perfect book for that picture (and it is the perfect picture)! I've not had the chance to read a lot of Millar, but I loved Beast in View and am always on the look-out for more.

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    1. Thanks Bev. I'm definitely going to do more re-reading, and hope she might be in for a revival. Actually her books would make great films...

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  5. Not read her yet though I ought to. I think I have one book by her and maybe close to 20 by her husband - which probably reflects the gender imbalance in my library.

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    1. Start on the husband first, and then you can work your way over to her....

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  6. Moira, I haven't read anything by Margaret Millar because I have never come across her novels though I have quite a few by her husband Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald. I'm going to have to look up ebook editions if possible.

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    1. They must be one of the great writing couples, Prashant, both such good authors. Do try one of hers....

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  7. Great post. I am another huge fan of Millar.

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    1. Such a good writer. Time for more re-reading I think.

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  8. I have read Millar but so long ago it will be like starting over again. I have picked up several of her books in the last couple of years and need to find time to read them. In fact they work for the Canadian challenge, and I had forgotten that.

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    1. Well that's a good reason to start on them. I read a few of them a while back, and don't remember much about them except that I was very impressed by them, and liked her plot twists.

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    2. Whenever I read them, the ones I read were dark and tense and not my type. Good but too much for me. But I want to read them anyway now and I don't think all of the books are like that.

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    3. I would say most of the ones I have read were dark. But I liked them anyway.

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