Friday, June 17, 2011

FFB: The Horizontal Man - Helen Eustis

There is a mystery attached to The Horizontal Man far and above the mystery in the book. Sophisticated and well read devotees of crime fiction will catch on to the twist fairly early on. It doesn't help much that Reader's Digest, in their "Best Mysteries of All Time" uniform reissue library, includes a little pamphlet that ties the book to a well known work by Robert Louis Stevenson. But even for those can't see through the obvious the surprise is telegraphed at least four different times before the true denouement. At the end of Chapter 26, for example, the surprise is given away in a melodramatic confrontation between two of the main suspects. The culprit will be officially unmasked eight chapters later in a prescient scene that foreshadows the remarkably similar ending of a classic thriller whose author and title I dare not mention.

The mystery then is why a book so clumsily plotted with a tendency towards overwrought writing won the Edgar Award for "Best First Mystery" and continues to make "Best Mystery" lists over and over. I offer up a couple of ideas. Although Eustis has a heavy hand at metaphor and lays on the poetic prose a little thick, however much she tries to conceal the ace up her sleeve while letting it fall several times throughout the story, her debut novel is noteworthy for its exploration into the realm of dark psychology. It should be recognized as a landmark suspense thriller for its time.

Only Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar, two similar writers, had entered the terror territory earlier than Eustis' 1946 debut. Hughes created quite a few horrifying psychopaths in her books. Millar was expert at unveiling the terrors hidden in a superficially mundane life.  Eustis takes both those aspects of the psychological crime novel and then adds her own personal ingredients in this story of the aftermath of a crime passionnel. There is an abundance of melodrama and numerous characters who easily might be at home in a Grand Guignol piece.

I suspect that this book is probably the first instance in crime fiction of employing a now overused, nearly cliche writer's trick. In the hands of more clever and polished writers that trick has fooled many a reader. One book in particular, though, has in effect stolen Eustis' thunder and overshadowed her early effort. But it should be pointed out the book I am cryptically referencing came fifteen years after The Horizontal Man was originally published.

The story is set in a women's college in Connecticut and the victim is Kevin Boyle, English professor, poet and a self-professed sexual Lothario on campus. He is found in his apartment bludgeoned with a fireplace poker and left to die in front of his still blazing fireplace. The immediate suspect is Molly Morrison, a deeply troubled, half mad, freshman whose puppy love crush on the teacher sent her over the deep end into a crazed obsession. When she learns of his death she completely falls apart and is sent to the college infirmary where she spends the bulk of the book ruminating over the emotional baggage of her screwed up family life, dwelling on her behavior that she believes led to Boyle's death, and ultimately undergoing analysis at the hands of Dr. Julian Forstmann, a psychiatrist brought in by the college president. She is only one of many pathetic portraits.

The cast includes Leonard Marks, college librarian and Boyle's confidante. He's painted as your typical Casper Milquetoast, an ineffectual loner "with no personality" who craves friends and friendship, but is clueless as to how to interact with anyone. He gets the worst treatment of any of the characters in the book. You can't help but feel sorry for the poor sap. I was rooting for him to get even with someone, but he's truly a pathetic case. When he writes poetry that attempts to express his passionate feelings it only sounds ridiculously anachronistic, like something from the 18th century. As the story progresses there are hints that he may have been sexually attracted to Boyle.

There's also George Hungerford, the Shakespeare professor, who on the surface appears to be just another crusty dig of an academic, but who the reader discovers is longing for death. His failed suicide still haunts him. His "nervous breakdown," so euphemistically mentioned throughout the story, is like the albatross hanging from the Ancient Mariner's neck. He needs sleeping pills to relieve his tortured anxiety and dreams of alternate methods of suicide that will end successfully.

The women do not escape Eustis' cruel writer's paintbrush either. Freda Cramm (there's a perfect name for a hateful character) is a two-faced temptress. The original 1940s audience would probably call her Jezebel. A modern reader would call her a cock tease. Others still might simply apply that catch all insult – bitch. She comes across as a hypocritical, self-absorbed, disingenuous woman remembered as a lazy student by the senior faculty. One of the older women at the college recalls that Cramm pursued the male staff as often as a student as she does now that she's on faculty herself. She and Marks have a war of the wills each seeing the other as an enemy. Cramm is wily and devious in the way she plays with Marks' trust and emotions, but Marks when he finally recognizes Cramm for what she is goes so far as to call her evil.

The book is told in the omniscient voice allowing Eustis to reveal each character's personal thoughts. It makes for an uncomfortable, practically claustrophobic, atmosphere as each chapter shows these people to be selfish, secretive, lonely, disturbed, haunted and tortured. There doesn't seem to be one, well-balanced,  trouble free soul on campus. With such extreme emotions at play they seem to have no other recourse than to act in the most extreme manner. Spying on one another, breaking into apartments, taunting and insulting each other with relish. Can there be no relief?

Thankfully, there are two characters who breathe a little fresh air into the proceedings. Kate Innes, a tomboyish intelligent student, and Jack Donnelly, a young tabloid reporter, meet, hit it off and turn amateur sleuths. Donnelly is the only character in the book who treats sad sack Leonard Marks with any decency. Innes seems to be the only female character in the book with common sense. She is willing to go out on a limb and try to save the reputation of Molly Morrison, reviled and ridiculed by the rest of her fellow students. Together Kate and Jack (with the college president's approval, of course) are allowed to interrogate the staff and student body in order to find something that will give Molly an alibi, saving her from jail and further humiliation, as she attempts to recover her mental health and well being.

While working together closely Kate and Jack develop an interest in each other. Their banter makes for a kind of Beatrice and Benedict love/hate relationship that is the only trace of humor is a book so dark it might as well be called an ebony suspense thriller. That they succeed in helping save Molly Morrison is a bright spot in the story for which the reader is truly grateful.

Why a crime plot set in the academic world with hardly one redeemable character in the story? I'd expect something of this nature to be a satire, but it's not the route Eustis chose. Reading the book made me squirm and raise my eyebrows more than a couple of times. Apart from the surprise revelation of the killer's identity I couldn’t see why all the characters had to be such messes - especially for a book written in the 1940s. I did a little research and came up with a bit of biographical information on Eustis that reveals all.

Eustis' first husband, Albert Fisher, was a philandering English professor and sometime poet just like the fictional Kevin Boyle. According to the autobiography of Daniel Aaron, a professor at Smith College and founder of American Studies, Fisher was known to "have charmed a number of Smith women into his bed." A valid point has been raised that The Horizontal Man is Eustis' savage revenge on her adulterous first husband's extramarital exploits. Perhaps this is why the book tends to be blacker than a moonless night.

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Patti Abbot is taking a break this week.  For the rest of Friday's Forgotten Books please go to our guest host's blog Todd Mason's Sweet Freedom.

17 comments:

  1. Sounds utterly dreadful. If I ever see it on a shelf at a used book store I will back slowly away, grateful for your warning.

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  2. I didn't mean to make it sound awful. It really isn't all that bad. It is a book you loathe or a book you appreciate for it's intriguing and somewhat daring approach in spite of its numerous flaws. But it definitely has a mood and tone that could be a turn-off to most people. The first few chpaters are very difficult to get through due to her laborious prose style. I've read on a few mystery book blogs how it sealed her fate and caused the reader to shut the book never to finish it.

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  3. I agree, sounds awful. Not for me, at any rate. Even the cover is dreadful.

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  4. I must say, John, the cover really is the biggest turn-off for me. In the old days, before I knew better, I might have read this book after tearing off the cover. GAK!!

    I wonder how many writers use their books to expunge their personal marital demons. (Tons of 'em, I'd imagine.) I tought about doing it myself - making my ex the victim of a fictional crime - HA! But after a while I lost interest.

    I do, occasionally like mysteries set in an academic milieu. College campuses appear to be hot-beds of aberation. HA!

    Joanne Dobson writes mysteries set in a fictional college and town. The first couple of books were terrific, but then they sort of peter out.

    I still enjoyed reading your review despite the fact that book sounds a bit of a non-starter. :)

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  5. Great article, but the reactions are interesting too. Do the commenters here read much of modern mystery fiction? This book is a forerunner of a lot of it. It was much praised at the time because the critics sensed something new in the dark psychological approach.

    John's quite right; it is a "landmark suspense thriller for its time" and should be read for that reason alone by people interested in the history of the mystery genre. And, hey, it's better than what Ruth Rendell has been writing the last decade or so, in my opinion!

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  6. You showed up just in the nick of time, Curt. I was just about to write a comment telling Rick and Bob to stay away from Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, T Jefferson Parker, Jeffrey Deaver, and oh about 30 more wirters who specialize in similarly dark psychological suspense thrillers.

    Intersting what you say about Rendell. My opinion of her has changed considerably when I ran across an interview she gave about ten or twelve years ago in which she dumped on Agatha Christie in a really nasty way. It was so arrogant coming from someone who often in her early career tended to borrow from Christie's standard bag of tricks. Or is that just coincidence?

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  7. Yvette -

    "Hot beds of aberration." Wow! that has quite a bit of resonance for me. How well I remember my days in college theater! You can just imagine applying that term both metaphorically and literally to theater people in their early to mid 20s. :^D

    I don't have a first edition of this book. I had to make due with the only copies I do own. The only photo of the first edition I found was from a website with photo protection and I couldn't "borrow" it for illustration purposes. But it's a boring typographic DJ. You just can't please everyone.

    If you hate this cover you should see the Dell Mapback for WISTERIA COTTAGE. Click here, if you dare.

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  8. Well done John, you've done a great job considering how hard it is to talk about this book without betraying its very important, nay crucial plot point - and I think you are dead right to invoke the author of 'Lefty Feep' as well as Millar and Rendell / Vine - I would add Richard Neely as another author that added to this most fascinating of subcategories - you could argue that Christianna Brand also has an inkling of this in her early novel HEADS YOU LOSE. And I knew nothing of Eustis' private life and its potential impact on the book - utterly fascinating.

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  9. The main reason I bought Wisteria Cottage was the cover!

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  10. Like most of the commentators before me, I think I'll let this one pass.

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  11. Ah well. "One man's meat..." My intent was to enlighten and not to chase away. I guess I have tastes far more eclectic than my readers. I also happen to be a champion for the fringe society members of our world. When I encounter fictional characters who are marginalized, shunned, ridiculed or troubled my heart bleeds even more for them. I almost always side with the underdogs and the misfits. However, in this case it was hard to feel much for some of them. Molly becomes one of my favorites in the book by the end. She slowly realizes she's not the screwed up mess everyone is telling her she is. And the ending really is a whopper - especially for 1946. I'm glad I managed to read past the off-putting start of the book that chases so many readers away.

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  12. Veg: "Do the commenters here read much of modern mystery fiction?"

    In my case, as little as possible -- I've tried it enough to know that it's not for me.

    I read mysteries for escape/fun. For me, that requires that I find at least a few characters that I like, or identify with in some way, or at least care a bit about.

    The GAD forum has had this discussion before, and I know there are differing opinions on the point. But for me, when just about everybody is despicable, why should I bother to find out what happens to them?

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  13. I've read most of the authors you listed in that comment back, John, and enjoyed about half, the rest, not so much.

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  14. "Do the commenters here read much of modern mystery fiction?"

    As little of it as possible! Some authors, like Bill Pronzini, are exceptional, but the vast majority fails to attract me in any way whatsoever. A whole lot of marital, sexual, psychological, or anatomical problems set against a background of childhood abuse and kepltomaniac mothers. It doesn't really interest me- the puzzle is sacrificed in favour of the literary stuff, which isn't that hot to start with.

    I might read this book one day, John. Some of its aspects sound interesting enough to warrant a read. Like "Murder Gone Mad", I don't expect much of a mystery when I read it, but I'm interested to see where things went from there.

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  15. Curse you, bad typing! Naturally, "kepltomaniac" is not the newest psychological mumbo-jumbo... Oh, boy, I'm embarassed now.

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  16. "The original 1940s audience would probably call her Jezebel. A modern reader would call her a cock tease. Others still might simply apply that catch all insult – bitch."

    Anything wrong with "slut"?

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  17. Well, if you don't like abnormal psychology in a detective novel, you don't like abnormal psychology in a detective novel (but vy iss that, I vonder....).

    God knows I sympathize with people who love "classical" mystery. I do myself. But I'm pretty catholic in my tastes by now (I currently draw the line at brooding and morose Scandinavian serial killer novels, however).

    And if you want to read psychological suspense from the forties and fifties my first recommendation would be Margaret Millar. She has the psychology stuff in spades, but also a deft hand at Christie-like misdirection.

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