Tag Archives: Canadian crime fiction

Vanish in an Instant: Margaret Millar (1952)

Back to the many unread Margaret Millar books on my shelves, and this time it’s Vanish In An Instant with its almost comical cover which belies this depressing, suffocating moody of tale of deception, greed, and murder.

Vanish

The book opens at the Detroit airport with the arrival of the fussy, not-very-pleasant Mrs. Hamilton and her companion, a young girl called Alice. Mrs Hamilton has flown in from sunny California to the snow and grime of Detroit–the weather sets the tone for the entirety of the novel. Mrs Hamilton is here on a mission to ‘save’ her spoiled daughter, Virginia Barkley, who has been accused of stabbing local lothario, Claude Margolis. While Mrs Hamilton expects to be met at the airport by her son-in-law, Dr Paul Barkeley, instead she’s greeted by Virginia’s newly-hired lawyer, Eric Meecham.

The sidewalk was dirty with slush and on the road the cars swished by with the splatters of mud. Even the wind was dirty. Somewhere, in the north of Canada, it had started out fresh, but it had picked up dirt on its journey, smoke and dust and particles of soot.

Mrs Hamilton is an unpleasant woman. She’s not interested in what happened to Claude Margolis or even why Virginia is accused of his murder. She’s the type who throws money at problems, and expects them to be fixed … pronto.

At first this seems to be an open-and-shut case with Virginia as the perp, but then a young man named Earl Loftus pops up at the police station and confesses to the crime. Everything seems to be very neatly sewn up: there’s a nice little confession and bloodstained clothes at the back of Earl’s wardrobe. Loftus didn’t know the victim but he has a plausible enough motive story to carry him all the way to the electric chair

Virginia is released, Loftus has confessed, and yet Meecham isn’t happy… he knows he’s missing something. Loftus, a sad, defeated man, has nothing to lose; he’s dying of Leukemia, and Meecham, driven by curiosity and a request from Loftus, starts digging below the fetid surface of this murder case.

In this moody tale, Meecham is drawn into the toxic worlds that surround Virginia and Loftus. The humiliations of poverty compounded by disease ensnare Loftus and almost make him welcome death, and even one hardened character grasps the poignancy of Loftus’s small, sad life.  In contrast there’s Virginia who’d happily rip off her mother by bumping up Meecham’s fee–just as long as she gets a slice of the action. Most of the people who inhabit these two seemingly disparate worlds, the rich and the poor, are unpleasant, and Meecham’s probing peels back layers of disturbing domestic lives. What is it about these characters that leaves Meecham feeling slightly unclean as though contact brings a cloying moral stain?

Although I didn’t care for the implausible love story, there are some great lines here which added a lot to the tale:

Lawyers come high. The more crooked they are, the bigger their price. That’s how they stay out of the booby hatch, by rubbing the lesions on their conscience with greenbacks.

And here’s Jacqui’s review

And Marina’s review

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Ask for Me Tomorrow: Margaret Millar (1976)

“In this business you see their worst side, until pretty soon you forget they have a better one. And then ten chances to one they haven’t, anyway.”

Margaret Millar’s Ask for Me Tomorrow opens on a hot afternoon in Santa Felicia, California. Immediately we step into a toxic domestic scene. Middle-aged Gilly is watching and talking to her wheelchair bound husband, Marco, a stroke victim. His right eyelid closes and opens “normally,” but the rest of his body is paralyzed. He doesn’t respond to his wife, and he doesn’t seem to register her presence, but in spite of this, Gilly keeps up almost constant conversation. She’s convinced that Marco is aware, at least on some level. Gilly’s efforts are admirable, but there’s also something off about her behaviour too. Is she trying too hard?

Trying was part of her nature, just as giving up was part of Marco’s. He had given up long before the stroke. It was merely a punctuation mark, a period at the end of a sentence.

Gilly is wealthy. She has hired a male nurse, beefcake Reed (think Tab Hunter wearing tight swimming trunks), and there’s also the housekeeper, the extremely religious, nosy Violet Smith who seems out-of-place in the household.

ask for me tomorrow

Through her lawyer, Smedley, Gilly arranges to hire a bilingual, newly graduated lawyer named Tom Aragon. Gilly refuses to discuss anything with Smedley and insists on discussing her case with Aragon at her home. Gilly tells Aragon that she was married before to a very wealthy man named B.J. Lockwood, but the marriage only lasted 5 years and ended when B.J. ran off with Tula, their 15 year-old pregnant Mexican maid. She hires Aragon to travel to Mexico and find out what happened to B.J. and the child he had with Tula.

Well, I’m fifty. That’s not very old, of course, but it cuts down on your alternatives, narrows your choices. There are more goodbyes and not so many hellos. Too many of the goodbyes are final. And the hellos-well, they’ve become more and more casual … I’ve lost one husband and I’m about to lose another. I’m depressed, scared, sitting in that room with Marco, listening to his breathing and waiting for it to stop. When it does stop, I’ll be alone, alone, period. I have no relatives and no friends I haven’t bought.

All a little weird as Gilly doesn’t seem the sentimental type. She arms Aragon with a letter she received from B.J. 5 years earlier. In the letter, B. J. asks Gilly for $100,000 which he says is an “opportunity to invest” in a building project, Jenlock Haciendas, in partnership with another American named Jenkins. According to B.J. “once the Americans get word of it we expect to be deluged with offers.” Yeah right. 

Gilly never sent the money. So Aragon’s task is to travel to Bahía de Ballenas, a place with no roads and no signposts, and discover what happened to B.J. and the child. Aragon goes to this remote, dusty, undeveloped region and ignites a trail of murder. 

Ask For Me Tomorrow is a wonderful book, full of peppy dialogue and quirky secondary characters, the waspish lawyer’s secretary, the pouty male nurse Reed, and Jenkins, the man caught up in the frenzy of dreams of riches. Yes, it’s a crime novel, and while I thought the plot was leading me in one direction, it took me somewhere else. More than anything else it’s about human nature and the bitterness of experience. There’s Gilly’s life story, of how she fell in love with the already married B.J. and how she worked on taking him from his wife, Ethel. He was, she claims, the love of her life, and yet there’s also bitterness there in a conversation she has with Aragon when she describes how B.J. ran off with Tula.

“B.J. always did honorable things, impulsive, stupid, absurd, but honorable. So the two of them rode off into the sunset. It was what they rode in that burns me up–the brand new motor home I’d just bought for us to go on a vacation to British Columbia. I was crazy about that thing. Dreamboat, I called it. On the first night it was delivered here to the house B.J. and I actually slept in it, and the next morning I made our breakfast in the little kitchen, orange juice and Grapenuts. A week later it was goodbye Dreamboat, B.J., Tula and the rest of the box of Grapenuts.”

“What do you want me to do, get back the rest of the Grapenuts?”

And then there’s B. J. What kind of a man was he? Evidently women were his Achilles’ heel but while he seems passive–the sort of man things happen to–he nonetheless manages to stir a maelstrom of emotions. 

It’s funny when you think about it–Henry Jenkins took B.J. from Tula the way she took him from me and I took him from Ethel. We just sort of passed him along from one to another like a used car. Even Ethel, Ethel the Good, she probably took him from somebody else. There was always someone waiting, wanting to use B.J. Where did it all start? The day he was born, the day the car came off the assembly line.

Absolutely fantastic

There are three Tom Aragon novels: Ask for Me Tomorrow, The Murder of Miranda, and Mermaid

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The Listening Walls: Margaret Millar (1959)

Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls begins in Mexico City with two American women, married, quiet Amy Kellogg and hot mess Wilma arguing in their hotel room. Wilma is busy bitching about Mexico which is odd since she’s the one who decided she wanted to vacation there, but then it becomes clear that Wilma, a spoiled rich woman who suffers from “nerves,” bitches about everything.

Wilma had had a bad year, a divorce (her second), the death of her parents in a plane wreck, a bout of pneumonia. She had planned the holiday in Mexico to get away from it all. Instead she had taken it all with her.

The argument is overheard by hotel maid Consuela who, thanks to a stay in America, speaks and understands English. She likes to listen in on guests and if she has an opportunity, she steals what she can. One evening the two American women spend the evening in a local bar with a ne’er-do-well drifter American named O’Donnell, and that night, Wilma falls from her hotel room balcony. She was drunk, and her death is ruled a suicide.

the listening walls

Amy’s husband Rupert flies down to Mexico to deal with the situation and bring Amy home. That would seem to be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning. Gill, Amy’s over-protective brother wants to see his sister when she returns home, but she simply vanishes. According to Amy’s husband Rupert, Amy wants some time alone and will shortly be in touch. To Gill, things don’t add up, and suspecting Rupert’s motives, he hires a private detective.

This is my second Millar novel. Margaret Millar doesn’t seem much read these days, and she’s faded in comparison to her husband, Ross Macdonald. The Listening Walls was initially hard to get into due to the cringe-worthy portrayal of Mexicans (immature, dishonest, sleazy), but once the novel moves back to America, things pick up. This is mostly due to the characters, which is ironic since that’s the very thing that weakened the novel in the beginning.

There’s Dodd, the determined, no-frills detective who digs deep for information, a veterinarian whose single-minded devotion to animals always comes first (my favourite scene), an all-too devoted secretary who ballroom dances, dodging the geezers who might drop in the middle of a tango, Gill a man whose primary relationship is with his sister–not his wife, and then there’s Gill’s far-from-loyal wife, Helene who hopes her sister-in-law never reappears:

She munched in a piece of crisp bacon, listening to Gill the way one listens to the waves breaking on a beach, knowing the noise will always be the same, only varying in volume now and then with the tides and the weather.

So often the noise was about Amy, and Helene listened out of habit. without interest. In her opinion, Amy was a dull little creature, invested with wit by her brother and beauty by her husband, and having, in fact, neither. 

I didn’t buy the ending but I preferred The Listening Walls to Beast in View.

Blogging amiga Jacqui also reviewed the book, and we more or less felt the same about it.

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