Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar

It’s been nearly two months since my first sampling of Margaret Millar’s work and like A Stranger in my Grave (1960), today’s read contains fractured and dysfunctional relationships, along with women with highly selective memories. The opening chapter in this book is a true delight, the delivery of information perfectly timed and executed. Mrs Hamilton flies to Arbana to be met by her son in law Paul; paid companion Alice Dwyer in tow. Something bad has happened but we don’t know what. Few paragraphs in and Mrs Hamilton tellingly says to Alice, ‘they probably won’t let me see Virginia tonight […] I guess they have visiting hours like a hospital.’ To what place are they referring to? Equally Mrs Hamilton and Alice are not met by Paul, but by Eric Meecham, Virginia’s lawyer. What has Virginia been up to? Of what is she accused? Though apparently she neither admits her guilt nor protests her innocence. Is she a wronged woman or a villain? The final sentence of the chapter details Eric’s thoughts: ‘He felt genuinely sorry for the woman, or for anyone to whom Virginia Barkeley was the most important thing in life.’ Virginia’s difficulties are seemingly resolved a few chapters in, but Eric is far from convinced by how things have turned out, believing the true version of events has yet to be uncovered of what really happened that night…

Overall Thoughts

As well as being proficient in how she gives her reader certain information, Millar is also adept in her characterisation and the way she portrays (most of) the relationships in the story. The first half of this story is more about Mrs Hamilton than her daughter, it is the former which drives the narrative. Virginia in fact has very little page time, which given how unlikeable she is, is no bad thing. She is not someone you feel sorry for. This lack of sympathy is not due to our delayed meeting of her, as even when we do encounter her she is spoilt, rude and irresponsible. But her naturally dysfunctional relationship with her mother becomes all the more interesting as the book progresses. Glimpses of this dysfunctional relationship appear from the very beginning of the book, in the ambiguous and complex reactions Mrs Hamilton has towards her daughter’s plight. I think the only character element Millar didn’t do so well with is the abrupt romance which occurs between Alice and Eric. A few brief sentences pass between them before a few days later they are planning on getting married. Given how good Millar is with her characters, this weakness area shows up considerably more. It doesn’t help that Alice subsequently spouts some fairly nauseating lines to Eric: ‘I’d like to be perfect for you […] I couldn’t live if you didn’t like the way I looked.’ Aside from its implausibility this relationship setup also jars a lot with the rest of the narrative in my opinion. It doesn’t feel like it properly fits. Maybe that’s the point, but it didn’t work for me unfortunately. Furthermore, I think the first half of the story is much stronger than the second, as in the second half it is much more of a story in which we are told information, rather than allowed to figure things out. But to end on more of a positive note I think Millar has a strong way with words, conveying so much more than a literal description of people, leaving you with very memorable impressions. Two which really stood out for me were when Eric comes across a character who has committed suicide: ‘He had grown enormously during the night. His face reached nearly to the ceiling.’ The second example concerns another character who has been crying: ‘Here eyes were so swollen that they didn’t look like human eyes at all, but like twin blisters raised by fire.’ One heck of a simile. Makes my eyes feel sore just thinking about it…

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Matriarch of family


  1. I share your dim view of the romance between Alice and Eric. As you say, it’s jarring and simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel. I wonder if the relationship was prompted by an editor. Vanish in an Instant is the darkest, most pessimistic Millar novel of the eleven I’ve read. Not even that shot of saccharin sunshine was enough to change that ranking.


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