Thursday, 17 December 2015

Xmas Misery: Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

published 1952





Eight o’clock, and a church bell was ringing out a Christmas carol, alternately brash and wispy, as the wind carried the tune like a temperamental choirboy.

O Little Town of Bethlehem. As he passed the church Meecham sang with the bells, a nervous obsessive singing that had nothing to do with music but was only an expression of disquiet. People were gathered on the church steps, huddled protectively in groups to withstand the force of the weather and of other groups. O Little Town.

Two blocks beyond the church he saw, in the glare of his headlights, a woman walking alone down the street. She was limping, heading into the wind with her coat and scarf flapping uselessly behind her like sails torn from a mast. Meecham pulled over to the curb. The woman turned abruptly, glanced at the car, and then began walking again with the springy uneven steps of someone accustomed to walking on ice.



commentary: I like this as an extreme example of a crime story’s attitude to Christmas. A murder story with a festive setting always seems like a great idea – look at the huge success of Mystery in White, the reprint from the 1930s that was a huge bestseller in 2014. And a good few Xmas mysteries have graced the blog at this time of the year.

But usually the author doesn’t make much of it – perhaps the snow as a blocker of travel, a trap, a medium for footprints. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a great book, but could really have been HP’s Easter.

The other route is this one: Margaret Millar wrote magnificent domestic noir books, and she wasn’t about to start getting sentimental about Christmas. The snow is something of an issue in this Michigan-set book, but Christmas is only there for sneering at, as in this unnecessarily harsh and bleak scene. I find it hard to imagine the bell (or bells) playing a Christmas carol at all, but of course they do it badly. Even the church-goers are (apparently) mean to each other. For goodness sake, you feel like saying, lighten up.

But you can’t argue with Millar’s greatness: she was a terrific writer, the books are tours de force.  She was born in 1915, so this has been her centenary year – marked by some crime fans but not much otherwise. This book made an appearance on the blog earlier in the year to mark her birthday.

The picture is called Dressed for Snow, and is from the Tyne and Wear Archives.


13 comments:

  1. That's it, exactly, Moira! Millar's writing style, her perceptiveness and her use of psychology were all great. I agree that many of her books take a really bleak view of things - they do. But I still find myself absorbed...

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    1. Yes - I can be impatient with writers I think are too bleak, but Millar gets a pass with me. She makes it work.

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  2. I have this one but don't remember much about it - love Millar though, so going to the top of the TBR! Thanks Moira.

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    1. I didn't remember anything from a previous reading, so enjoyed it all over again. Hope you do the same. And that its misery contrasts with a happy Xmas for you!

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  3. Moira, my hunt for Margaret Millar's books continues. I will persevere in my search till I find at least one.

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  4. Yes, she really was a terrific writer. The standard was so impressively high. Some good titles too . . .

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  5. A mystery set at Christmas by Millar. I will have to read that for next Christmas. I have only read books by Millar set in California (with a trip or two to Mexico) or in Canada, but I had read she had set at least one in the northern US.

    I am trying to decide if that scarf is crocheted or knitted. You can do chevron patterns in both. I love scarves and now I should go crochet a scarf with a chevron pattern. It also looks like some of it is not chevron so that is either the border or ???

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    1. It is quite hilariously non-festive, Tracy, but still quite seasonal in its own way. I'm actually going to do another entry about the snowmen in it.
      I hadn't looked closely at the scarf till you said, and I can't decide. At first I thought: knitted central square, with deep chevron crochet border. Make one and post a picture!
      BTW, did you see Peter Dickinson died?

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    2. I did see the news about Peter Dickinson, at a blog yesterday, and them another today. So sad.

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  6. I ought to try Millar at some point, but probably not this one - unless of course it crops up in a tub!

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    1. Millar is the one recent author on the blog that I really think you might like...honest!

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