The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ 1947. This edition: Persephone, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 1-903155-320. 231 pages.
My rating: 9.5/10
Hardboiled is about toughness. Noir is about weakness.
All crime fiction is about moral transgression. Most mysteries put us on the side of the person trying to expose the transgression. Noir, though, puts us on the side of the person who is trying to hide the transgression.
~ Jake Hinkson (In interview with Mike Monson here.)
The reading lately has been overwhelmingly rewarding; a recent foray to the small B.C. Okanagan city of Vernon having netted me a substantial number of promising books, among them an astounding six (!) beautiful and pristine Persephone Press reprints – rare as hen’s teeth in the used book trade in this part of the world, as no doubt most of the people who go to the trouble to acquire them cling like mad to their precious editions.
There was this one, and also The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, and last but decidedly not least, They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple. (I left behind a single one, Mariana by Monica Dickens, because I already own several copies. But later, on the long drive home, I was rather surprised to find myself mentally berating myself for not snagging it as well. The dove-grey books being so beautifully produced.) Plus an early (pre-Persephone) edition of Heat Lightning by Helen Hull, among much else. The dusty-old-books treasure hunt was blissfully successful this time round!
This digression is really just me stalling for time, because I am waffling about how best to discuss The Blank Wall. It was good. Very, very good. But in an unusual sort of way, because it is that so-hard-to-get-just-right thing, “a novel of suspense”, and much of the thrill of reading it was coming to it with no prior knowledge beyond the brief flyleaf excerpt.
She got a book and read it in bed with stubborn determination. It was a mystery story she had got out of the lending library for her father, and she was not fond of mystery stories. Nobody in them ever seemed to fell sorry about murders, she had said. They’re presented as a problem m’dear, her father said. What’s more, they generally show the murdered person as someone you can’t waste any pity on. I’m sorry for them, she said, I hate it when they’re found with daggers sticking in them and their eyes all staring from poison and things like that.
Yet how little pity did she feel for Ted Darby! I really did that, she thought amazed. I concealed a body. Anyhow I took it away. And when I came back – after that – nobody could see anything wrong with me – anything queer. Maybe I haven’t got so much feeling, after all. Maybe I’m rather too tough.
I’d better be, too, she thought, as she rose and started to dress.
It’s well into World War II, and Lucia Holley, middle-aged housewife, is holding down the fort on the home front in rural New York state while her husband Tom is off “somewhere in the Pacific.” Lucia has recently rented a lakeside house, where she quietly resides with her elderly father (Mr. Harper), 15-year-old son (David), 17-year old daughter (Beatrice a.k.a. Bee), and long-time maid (Sibyl).
War-time rationing is in full force, making the everyday business of acquiring such household essentials such as butter, cheese, meat and laundry soap something of a challenge – interesting side plot regarding how best to lay out one’s “points” – and cigarettes and gasoline are virtually unobtainable. Rather than driving private cars, people are now frequently using taxis for their transportation – another fascinating period detail which becomes an intertwining plot device as the story convolutes to its end.
Bee, in the full throes of impatient post-adolescent rebellion, has decided to attend “art school” in the city. There she has become involved with a much older man, to the deep dismay of Lucia, who is completely involved in overseeing and nurturing her family, having apparently completely subjugated herself to the role of perfect daughter, wife and mother. Only Sibyl knows that the façade is sometimes just that, and she quietly covers up for her employer’s inefficiencies; the two women are complicit in their joint creation of the domestic fable of Lucia’s complete competence.
However, Lucia is no fool, though her children increasingly think her so. And as she finds her life spiralling into absolute disaster, she finds that she has an inner fortitude unsuspected during her previously sheltered and very tame life.
Bee is particularly snotty with her mother, informing her time after time that she (Lucia) has wasted her life, has no ambition, has no concept of how to properly live and no ability to analyze people; that someone of Lucia’s generation and social status (upper middle class) is basically dead from the neck up, and should be kept firmly in their proper place. Which is, apparently, as a provider of a nice place of live and a ready source of funds to allow those more capable of truly appreciating Life to get on with things. Meaning Bee. Who is an utterly nasty creature, in a perfectly “nice” way.
David is a miniature version of the all-knowing Man-of-the-Family, and has ruthlessly placed himself in that role, obviously compensating for his father’s absence with a juvenile version of misanthropic superiority to, well, just about everyone he meets. But in particular his doting mother, whose activities he oversees and critiques and occasionally forbids. And while Lucia meekly complies with his bossiness in the interests of domestic harmony, she is getting increasingly annoyed at her son’s pompous attitudes and assumptions.
When Bee’s shady lover turns up demanding a personal interview, Mr. Harper deals with him in his own way, and blissfully reports to his daughter that the problem of Bee’s love affair has been solved. Just how permanently is soon discovered by Lucia, when she sneaks away from the house the next morning in pursuit of an illicit (meaning forbidden by David) solitary swim…
I’ll throw out some more teasers. The rest of the tale involves blackmail, small-time thuggery, black marketers, racial prejudice, diverse people failed by the justice system, an unlikely (and sexually pure) passion, the yacht club set and social snobbery, multiple deceptions all around, and brutal death.
Definitely not a “cozy”! A deeply disturbing story in multiple ways. The ending was exceedingly thought-provoking, and I’d love to divulge my thoughts, but in the interests of you all experiencing this one properly, I won’t.
If you are into domestic noir (think Patricia Highsmith and her ilk) – or even if you aren’t but are willing to take a chance on something rather dark – read it.
Heading off now to ABE, to investigate the availability of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 17 other suspense novels.