|The 2002 Quality Paperback|
Book Club edition of this
classic Holding suspense "twofer"
This pair of short novels of about 60-70,000 words apiece--The Blank Wall is the longer of the two--were reprinted together in one volume by Academy Chicago (now Chicago Review Press) in 1991, after a long, nearly three-decades-long drought, during which none of Holding's books were in print. After the success, a decade later, of the critically acclaimed film The Deep End (starring Tilda Swinton in a Golden Globe nominated performance), the Quality Paperback Book Club issued an edition of the same "twofer" in 2002.
The next year, in 2003, the small publisher Stark House began reprinting additional Holding twofers (through this series Stark House currently has ten of Holding's eighteen crime novels in print, and two more are on their way next year). Finally, a decade later, in 2013, Persephone Books, an excellent press devoted to older fiction by women authors, reprinted The Blank Wall solo.
An excellent Holding novella was included in Sarah Weinman's Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which also was published in 2013. Reviews of Weinman's anthology have repeatedly referred to the writers collected therein as "forgotten," "overlooked," "unjustly neglected," etc., while never mentioning the laudable efforts of Academy Chicago and Stark House, among others small presses,which I think is a shame. Small presses have been doing great work for decades keeping fine authors from the past in print, but they often don't have access to the publicity mills. So consider this my shout-out to Stark House and other fine smaller presses. Let's hope you get some of the attention (and the sales) you deserve.
|the striking cover illustration of the|
first paperback edition of
The Innocent Mrs. Duff
To be sure, I disagree with the tendency these days to proclaim ever crime novel with serious or dark elements as "noir." When Hinkson writes that Holding "was a woman [publishing] in a distinctly masculine field," he errs, in my view. Hard-boiled and noir may have been a masculine field, with some exceptions, but psychological suspense, which is what Holding wrote, was more a feminine field (Weinman has adopted the term "domestic suspense" for these books).
Having published her first suspense novel in 1929, Holding is more accurately seen as, along with Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart of the once-derided "Had-I-But-Known" school, an American founding mother of psychological suspense.
Holding, however, feels distinctly more modern than Rinehart, whose roots go back to Gothic fiction according to Catherine Ross Nickerson, and most definitely more original and interesting than Eberhart, who all too quickly devolved into the bland, if highly profitable, formula fiction of the slicks (the hugely popular glossy women's magazines of the 1930s, so loathed by Raymond Chandler). Holding's books--some of which were serialized in the slicks as well--are darker and more adventurous; though they are not noir, from what I've read, they definitely have affinity with it.
The Innocent Mrs. Duff certainly is not anywhere as viscerally horrific as Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1952), but in its more genteel way it remorselessly anatomizes a main character who is utterly loathsome to spend time with, just as in Thompson's novel. Jacob Duff is another of Holding's middle-aged drunks from an upper crust New York background (as indicated in my last blog post, there is a similar, though much more sympathetic--and much less interesting--character in Holding's earlier The Obstinate Murderer, 1938).
Jacob Duff, we soon learn, is easily bored and perennially dissatisfied. He invariably locates the sources of his unhappiness in others besides himself. After the death of his first wife, Helen, he married, on the rebound, young Regina "Reggie" Riordan, a photographer's model--a move he now bitterly regrets. Once Reggie was charming to him, but now everything she does he finds alienating.
He sees her no longer as charmingly unsophisticated, but irksomely common, indulging in slang (even the very name "Reggie" he can no longer stand), enjoying doing housework herself ("You'd never have caught Helen alone in the kitchen with an apron on, he thought") and associating much too freely with servants. Additionally he deems her annoyingly inexperienced sexually ("she's like a schoolgirl"). Already Duff's roving, bleary eye has alighted on Miss Castle, governess of Jacob Duff, Jr., his seven-year-old son with his first wife, the dead and sainted Helen.
|the "mapback" of the Dell edition|
showing the beach cottage of the Duffs
Just what happens there?
Read it and see for yourself.
The more self-consciously refined sort of Anglo-American crime writer of the period--Theodora Dubois, for example--might have portrayed Reggie as gratingly "vulgar," to use a favorite word of this sort of author, but Holding does no such thing. It's Duff's condescension to Reggie (and others) that she skewers.
Late in the book, there's an amusing exchange between Duff and a gas station attendant in a village where Duff owns a beach cottage, which illustrates the more democratic ethos of Holding's novel:
"I'd like to rent a car for a couple of hours," said Duff.
"Couldn't do it," said the man, a young man with a broad, turned-up nose.
"My name is Duff," said Duff.
"Well, I can't help what your name is," said the other. "We don't rent cars no more."
This goes on for a while, Duff getting more and more flustered at the phlegmatic young man's refusal to be impressed by his name and his property-holding status ("Look here! I told you my name was Duff! Jacob Duff. I'm a property owner here. Everyone knows me."/"Well, I don't," said the young man.)
Over the course of the novel Duff becomes more and more dependent on on liquor (he progresses from whisky to gin, which at the start of the novel he hates) and more and more loathful of his wife. He begins to think how much more pleasant marriage with the superior Miss Castle would be....
|Jacob Duff's truest love|
Yet the novel is also a fine study of a repellent drunk in a state of advanced moral and mental disintegration. This is where the comparison with Jim Thompson holds (liquored) water. Jacob Duff makes you cringe, but you can't look away; you feel compelled to keep reading about him.
Other characters are well observed too. There's "innocent" Reggie Duff of the title; the circumspect Miss Castle; little Jacob Duff, Jr. (Holding clearly understood children as well as she did middle-aged drunks); Mrs. Albany, Jacob Duff's wise and wealthy aunt (from whom he has great expectations); and Nolan, the Duffs' attractive and enigmatic chauffeur, late from the war.
Jake Hinkson says that in Duff "we find domestic life rendered as a kind of living hell." I would argue that it is Jacob Duff who has made domesticity a kind of hell for those around him. It's Duff who condemns life in suburbia and likes to imagine himself as a "natural man" who should be free to act however he desires. It's clear, however, that Duff would never rest content for long in any environment. "The worst sort of unfaithfulness there is," Mrs. Albany tells him, "is to get tired of people, as you do. You're fickle, Jacob....You've got tired of [Reggie]--and when you're tired of people, you're inclined to be ruthless...."
As good as The Innocent Mrs. Duff is (it came as no real surprise to me to learn that Raymond Chandler, who greatly admired Holding, worked on a screenplay adaptation, sadly uncompleted, of the book when he was in Hollywood), Holding excelled it the next year with the novel commonly regarded as her masterpiece, The Blank Wall. I'll have some words about this novel next week.