Sunday, August 24, 2014

Circe of Suspense: Two Novels of Suspense by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and The Blank Wall (1947)

The 2002 Quality Paperback
Book Club edition of this
classic Holding suspense "twofer"
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novels The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and The Blank Wall (1947) may not necessarily be the peak of her crime writing achievement--I haven't yet read all her books to say-- but they certainly are high points in a mighty range. It's hard to imagine her doing better than these superlative crime novels.

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
In an article entitled "The Godmother of Noir," Jake Hinkson compares Holding's The Innocent Mrs. Duff to the work of noir author Jim Thompson, claiming that this book and others by Holding read as if they "could have given birth to Jim Thompson's unhinged psychos." This may strike people as an extravagant comparison, but, having read Duff, I understand what Hinkson is talking about here.

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.
Irony abounds in all this, because we, the readers, see the tremendous gap between Duff's perception of Reggie and the way she seems to be to us and everyone else, which is remarkably charming, forbearing and empathetic.

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
The Innocent Mrs. Duff is a wonderful crime novel, achieving all those things that advocates of the form want to see.  Unquestionably it's a suspenseful "page-turner" (I read the book in two sittings and was tempted to go for one).

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.


  1. Not read this one though I'm sure I own the Dell Mapback edition. I keep wanting to read NET OF COBWEBS which oddly is the first Holding novel I ever purchased and that is also *still* unread. THE BLANK WALL is, I think, a real classic among crime novels of all time not just Holding's time. Seen both movies, both well done each in their own way, but I kind of prefer the revisionist remake over the original. I found it more believable with Swindon as the mother who goes to extremes in order to protect her gay teenage son than Lucia doing likewise for her distant and indifferent daughter.

    1. John, *totally* agree with you about The Blank Wall. Reread after a decade and found it holds up so well. I agree with you about the film versions too. The Reckless Moment is more technically faithful to the letter of the novel yet somehow misses so much of the spirit. All the characters besides Lucia (Constance Bennett) and Donnelly (James Mason, *perfectly* cast) are ciphers (the children, Bea and the comic relief David, are far more irritating than in the book and the father contributes nothing, where in the book he's an important character too; the maid, Sibyl, is better, but not nearly as good as Book Sibyl). The Deep End changes a lot, but has the spirit.

      Still, I wouldn't mind seeing a faithful version, actually set during WW2, which is so important to the novel.

      Please review Net of Cobwebs, would love to get your view!

  2. Well, as a collective nouns go, 'Circe' was not what I was expecting Curtis! As always, you make these sound so incredibly worthwhile - if I weren't in the middle of Woolrich's PHANTOM LADY I'd probably drop everything to see if I a can share the great reading experience! I certainly have every intention of reading BLANK WALL to see how the two film versions compare, so really looking forward to reading what you make of it. Thanks chum.

    1. Sergio, have you seen both films versions? I recently watched The Reckless Moment for the first time and rewatched The Deep End and found comparing the two interesting. I know Holding is probably not the first image people have of Circe, but she's magical in my book!

      On the DVD featurette of The Deep End, the directors referenced postwar melodrama (Douglas Sirk films), which I thought was interesting. Didn't hear the word "noir" once, but I have still to listen to their full film commentary!

  3. I remember acquiring the mapback edition of this simply because it was part of the series, but I had no intention of reading it; didn't look like my kind of book. Then I picked it up one day and was glued to it till I finished. It's still not my kind of book, but it surely is powerful and well-written.

    1. In the English tradition her stuff really seems more akin to the Francis Iles books, though much more emotionally persuasive, I think.

  4. I wanted to cheer lustily the whole way through this post -- many thanks for it. I couldn't agree more with your call for a shoutout for the smaller presses like Stark House who're doing so much to keep these classics alive, and it was reading the very twofer you illustrate that last year both introduced me to Holding's work and made me an instant fan. I've since read and very much liked the novella in the Weinman antho, too.

    What might really help Stark House would be if librarians could become aware of their existence.

    1. Yes, Holding's books should be in libraries. Love Stark House for taking the lead in reprinting them. Glad you enjoyed the piece, thanks for commenting!

  5. Hey, great write up. I am seeking out the older titles by her. I wrote up my review today as well, of The Blank Wall. Overall thought it was fantastic. What did you think of the ending? Did you like how it ended? without spoilers if you can share your thoughts. Thanks.

    1. I can wait for your thoughts on The Blank Wall next week so disregard.

    2. Hi Keishon, I'd like to see your thoughts on the book (BW)! I really like it, of course have to be careful about spoilers. It seemed to me like it was the ultimate "domestic suspense" book, about what would happen with this "normal" housewife to whom all these incredible things happen. I got the sense that as horrifying as it all was, there was a kind of exhilaration too, knowing that she could take on these criminals, etc. I loved the character of her maid, Sibyl. So often in older mysteries such a character is there merely to provide so-called "humor" but Sibyl gets more and more interesting as the book goes along. The Restless Moment didn't really do full justice to this character and The Deep End, not really surprisingly (it's a much different time and place), eliminated her.

    3. Yes, I agree with everything you said. I thought that her character ended up being more capable that she thought she could be. I loved Sybil's character and her story about when she lived in Georgia. Here is my humble thoughts: