Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Death Wish - Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

I had to keep checking the copyright date on The Death Wish, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s third foray into the crime novel. It had a very post World War Two feel to it: life in the suburbs, men car pooling to the train station to get to their routine city jobs, wives staying at home tending to their domestic comfort, and an insidious atmosphere of discontent and resentment lying beneath the surface. But this book was written in 1935. It shows the American genesis of a crime novel subgenre dominated by character psychology and criminal thoughts that was already being pioneered in England in books like Malice Aforethought, and Before the Fact by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) and Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester.

If the title alone hasn’t informed the reader of the story that awaits him then surely the opening pages will do it. Josephine Delancey berates her husband for sneaking out of the bedroom once again in his stealthy manner. She nearly accuses him of wanting to kill her. Shawe Delancey heads out of the house to pick up his friend and neighbor, Robert Whitestone, a struggling painter who has had to take a day job just to live an ordinary life. He confesses to hating his stifling home life, his wife Rosalind is smothering him with demands, belittling his artistic aspirations and impeding his creative progress. He would like to kill her. Whitestone then challenges his friend, “You’re the same with Josephine. Don’t deny it.” Shawe is insulted, gets indignant and walks away from his friend though secretly he knows that Whitestone is correct.

Two unhappy husbands -- one who has voiced his desire to rid himself of his wife, the other feeling the same, but too cowardly to openly admit it. Add into the mix Elsie Sackett, a young woman who sets her eyes on Robert Whitestone and wants him as much as he wants her, and you have the basic ingredients for a time bomb of impassioned desires and dark impulses waiting to explode in violence. Soon Rosalind Whitestone is dead – a drowning accident at the beach that is much too suspicious to believe given that she was such an excellent swimmer.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
The story is told in an omniscient voice and we are privy to the thoughts of all the characters. Much of the dialog is thought rather than spoken and is a stark contrast to what the characters actually speak aloud. Whole interior monologues are set out as dialog as if the characters cannot relate to one another truthfully, that this Long Island town is populated with nothing but tormented loners forever walking about talking to themselves trying to work out their troubles. This may not seem too radical and to some perhaps may come off as prosaic for crime fiction, but in 1935 there were few writers doing this kind of thing. The reading public was still enthralled with the puzzle of the traditional whodunit and the inner life of the characters was not the emphasis of the story.

That is not to say that Holding has completely discarded the tropes of the whodunit. Hugh Acheson, also smitten with the temptress Elsie, takes it upon himself to turn detective and prove that Whitestone helped Rosalind into the great beyond. With only two pieces of evidence -- a bathing suit accidentally discovered drying in a pantry rather than outside on a clothesline, and the fact Whitestone was not wearing his glasses when they found him painting in his studio the day his wife died -- he builds up a case against Robert Whitestone who scoffs as the flimsy circumstantial nature of Acheson’s finds. Then Whitestone’s glasses are found on the beach on the other side of some rocks near a path that leads to his home and the police take a serious interest in Acheson’s accusation.

Like Lucia Holley in Holding’s later book The Blank Wall, Delancey is determined to protect someone he cares for from being prosecuted as a criminal. Of Robert Whitestone he says, “He’s no more capable of a dastardly crime like that than I am.” He enlists Elsie’s help in freeing Robert and clearing him of the murder charge. They will say Robert was wearing his glasses when he was painting. It will be Hugh’s word against theirs. A childish tactic certainly, but desperation and devotion often lead adults to act impetuously.

Even stranger is that Hugh suddenly wants to protect Elsie. Her brash behavior, her open flirting, and her relationship with Whitestone he warns her will come to light and will only further tarnish her already sullied reputation and – more importantly – further damn Whitestone as a guilty man. Elsie will be seen as the primary motive for Whitestone killing Rosalind. Hugh’s idea? That they pretend to have fallen in love and act out a sham engagement. He even gives her his mother’s ring to wear as further evidence for the police of their betrothal.

Yet all this pretense and rearranging of the truth does not serve to help Whitestone and only creates more unrest and turmoil in the lives of all those involved. Delancey is deeply affected – perhaps more accurately he is deeply infected – when Whitestone is arrested and thrown in jail. The “death wish” so early recognized by his friend as something they both shared develops into a full blown disease. He contemplates his own murder with truly tragic results.

Holding is best known for The Blank Wall, an equally suspenseful crime story of a mother who goes to great lengths to cover up what she believes is a murder her daughter committed. That novel was twice adapted for the movies: once as The Reckless Moment and much later in a radically updated version (with the daughter substituted for a gay son) called The Deep End. Some of her other books and stories have also been translated to movies and have shown up on old TV anthology shows like "Lights Out!" She was truly a gifted writer with keen insight in the darker side of human nature. Somehow she has faded into the background along with several other woman crime writers who picked up where Holding left off. I count among those writers Margaret Millar, Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong. I am curious why nearly all of these women's books have been allowed to go out of print. Contemporary crime writing owes much to all four of these women, but probably to Holding most of all. She came first and she left an indelible mark.

Most of Holding's books can be found in affordable paperback editions from used bookstores and booksellers specializing in vintage crime books. Only one independent publisher, Stark House Press, has been wise enough (and brave enough) to reissue a handful of her works in a series of books that include two titles in one volume. The Death Wish is coupled with Net of Cobwebs, an amnesia tale that will be reviewed here in the coming weeks. As I have done Christianna Brand I will be devoting a lot of space on this blog to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's work in the months ahead. I think she is one of the unsung pioneers in American crime fiction and she deserves to be noticed for her accomplishments.


  1. You're right, of course, about the sorry neglect shown Margaret Millar, Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong. Inexplicable.

    I note that The Reckless Moment is available in its entirety on YouTube (beginning here). Just the thing for a wet afternoon, I expect.

  2. Brian -

    I have been wanting to see THE RECKLESS MOMENT for decades. Thanks so much for finding that You
    Tube version. I've watched a few movies that way when there was no other recourse like no rental copies at my local video stores and no Netflix version. I'll definitely be checking it out soon.

  3. Raymond Chandler thought Elisabeth Sanxay Holding one of the best crime novelists and made several attempts to persuade Hamish Hamilton to publisg her books in the U.K.

  4. I read this and The Unfinished Crime at the same time and preferred the latter, but she's certainly an interesting writer, for reasons you outlined above.

    By the way, we were just talking about racy mystery paperback covers over at the Golden Age Detection Facebook page and this cover--ahem!--popped up!

  5. Very interesting. I must definitely read this one.