Thursday, June 19, 2014
Ace Doubles: The Blank Wall/The Girl Who Had to Die, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
The Blank Wall/The Girl Who Had to Die, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
a review by Rich Horton
I went to an antique mall in Kansas City after attending ConQuest (a science fiction convention) a few weeks ago. One stall had a bunch of old paperbacks, including an Ace Double. This one intrigued me because it was a mystery by an author I had never heard of, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. The covers including some impressive quotes praising Holding, from places like the New Yorker; as well as one from Raymond Chandler: "She's the top suspense writer of them all."
I confess I had visions of rediscovering a completely forgotten master of the pulp era. But when I researched Holding I learned that plenty of people are way ahead of me. That's not to say she wasn't somewhat unfairly forgotten. She was born in 1889, died in 1955. She began her writing career as a romance novelist, but switched to mysteries during the depression. Her novels sold fairly well, and she was well-praised. She wrote at least one YA fantasy, Miss Kelly, which Anthony Boucher praised in the pages of F&SF. But she did seem to be mostly forgotten after her death.
That said, The Blank Wall, generally considered her best novel, had already been filmed in 1949 as The Reckless Moment (starring Joan Bennett and James Mason). It was filmed again in 2001 as The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton. (This was pretty much Swinton's "breakout" film, "breakout" here being relative to Swinton's career -- that is, she didn't become a major movie star, she just moved from a well-respected indie actress to an even more respected Hollywood actress, who would contend for Academy Awards (and, indeed, eventually win one).) More recently, a number of Holding's books have been reprinted by Persephone Press and by Stark House (the latter, neatly, are double editions). The Blank Wall was even featured in a Guardian list, in 2011, of the "Ten Best Neglected Literary Classics". She has been called "The Godmother of Noir". So she's not forgotten, and indeed I think her reputation is slowly increasing at last.
My Ace Double includes two novels, The Girl Who Had to Die (1940) and The Blank Wall (1947). The Girl Who Had to Die was first published by Dodd, Mead; and The Blank Wall by Simon and Schuster. There was a 1950 Pocket Books edition of The Blank Wall, with the classic blurb: "Playing with jail bait earned him a date with death!". (In perfect blurb fashion, this is not at all false, but neither does it describe the book in any useful way.) The Ace Double edition was part of a series of six Holding doubles that appeared in 1965.
Both books are told in tight third person, and spend much of the time in the protagonist's mind, exploring their internal reactions. This serves to portray the character quite effectively, at least in The Blank Wall -- one of the weaknesses of The Girl Who Had to Die is that the main character never really convinces.
The Blank Wall's protagonist is Lucia Holley, a New York housewife in her late 30s, who has rented a house on Long Island, on the ocean, while her husband is away. (He's an officer in the U.S. Navy in World War II.) She lives with her two children, 17 year old Bee and 15 year old David; as well as with her elderly father (who is English) and an African-American maid, Sibyl. Bee is going to art school and New York, and Lucia is upset that she has been seeing a 35-year-old married man, Ted Darby. Darby shows up at their house, lurking by the boathouse, and Lucia's father goes out to confront him, and (without knowing it) accidentally kills him. Lucia discovers the dead body the next morning and, to protect her father and Bee from scandal, hides the body on an island.
Of course this doesn't work, for multiple reasons. The body is soon discovered. Darby, it turns out, is every bit as bad as Lucia thought, a gangster and a dealer in porn (no doubt his intention for Bee was to make her a model). For a time it seems the crime might be pinned on a ganster associate of Darby's. But Lucia has further troubles: a couple more gangsters show up trying to extort money from her in exchange for some embarrassing letters from Bee to Darby that Darby had sold them. And a neighbor saw Lucia taking the boat out with Darby's body, though not closely enough to identify her. But that -- and other aspects of the crime -- is enough to raise the suspicions of the investigator, Lieutenant Levy (who is apparently a character in a number of Holding's books).
Then Lucia starts to get a bit attached to one of the blackmailers, Martin Donnelly. He seems to like Lucia, and offers to pay off his partner so that he'll stop the blackmail, and he even sends them some black market meat. (One of the excellent minor points of the novel is its depiction of the difficulties of household management because of the rationing during the War.) Their meetings, though basically innocent (if hinting at suppressed sexual attraction) infuriate David and Bee, who suspect the worst.
There is another killing, and another desperate attempt to hide a body, and Lieutenant Levy seems to know pretty much everything ... well, I won't detail the ending. But the book works beautifully. Lucia's actions, each on the face of it understandable, if often foolish, keep winding the noose tighter around her. Her motivations ring true, her inner life -- missing her husband while worrying she's forgetting him, fretting that she hasn't raised Bee right, frustration at her relative incompetence as a housekeeper (only Sybil really keeps the household going), her isolation from the neighbors -- is excellently portrayed. The prose is quite fine as well. As noted, Lucia is depicted very well, and so is Sybil (who has her own sad back story, a husband unfairly imprisoned (in a way only too understandable for African-Americans of that time). The children are perhaps a bit caricatured, especially Bee; and Martin Donnelly's unexpected nobility, though affecting and well-described, seems perhaps a bit fortuitous. As I said, the background details of wartime life on the home front are very well done. This is a novel that deserves its reputation.
The Girl Who Had to Die is less successful. The protagonist is Jocko Killian, a clerk from New York who has spent a year in Argentina, and is returning in the company of an unstable and alcholic 19 year old girl, Jocelyn. Jocelyn tells him that there are 5 people who want to murder her. Soon after she falls overboard, and though she is rescued, Jocko is accused of pushing her. This leverage ends up enough to force him to accompany her to the Long Island home of a rich old man, Luther Bell, along with a few other people from the ship.
Over the next couple of days Jocko learns a bit more of Jocelyn's unfortunate history. She is given an overdose of drugs, and one of the other men flees, perhaps incriminating himself. In something like desperation, Jocko decides to marry Jocelyn, as much because she insists he's the only man who truly cares for her, essentially making him feel guilty -- he half or more suspects that both the overdose and the plunge into the ocean were suicide attempts. But there are more and more secrets in Jocelyn's life, and concerning her history with the various residents of the Bell household as well as the visitors from the ship. Can Jocko escape her clutches -- or instead can he rescue her from her sordid past?
As I said above, my main problem with this book is that Jocko's motivations and thoughts just didn't seem real to me. Jocelyn's story is interesting and sad, but a bit fuzzed out, held too much at a distance. The novel is interesting and strange but on the whole it seemed too artificial a construct to me.