From conventional wife and mother to a suspect in murder investigations
I came across Elisabeth Sanxay Holding through the site of a blogger who writes about Film Noir, John Grant’s fascinating Noirish and a further site where he was interviewed, (alas I have lost the link) and he mentioned her as a writer of quality noir.
And she is, on this reckoning. An American novelist, born in 1889 married to a Brit, she started out as a writer of romantic novels, moving to the hardboiled detective genre after the 1929 stock market crash, for lucrative reasons – a popular selling genre! Not to mention, a genre she clearly had a talent for. She created a quiet, thoughtful detective in Lieutenant Levy, who features in this novel, though he is far from the central character.
No less a hardboiled detective supremo than Raymond Chandler rated Holding hugely
The Blank Wall, written in 1947, and set during the Second World War, particularly fascinated me because the central character, a middle aged woman, Lucia Holley, is such a very unlikely candidate to become embroiled in not one, but two murder investigations
Lucia’s husband Tom is away in the war. She writes conventional, dull letters to him
Lucia Holley wrote every night to her husband, who was somewhere in the Pacific. They were very dull letters, as she knew; they gave Commander Holley a picture of a life placid and sunny as a little mountain lake.
“Dear Tom,” she wrote. “It is pouring rain tonight”
She crossed it out, and sat for a moment looking at the window where the rain slid down the glass in a silver torrent. There’s no use telling him that, she thought. It might sound rather dreary. “The crocuses are just up” she wrote.
You get the picture, Lucia is conventional; Lucia is rather dull. She is a kind, loyal to her family kind of woman. She is a quite well off woman, normal, comfortable. She would probably be living the American Dream were it not for the war, which sees her raising her two children and taking care of her elderly father, all by herself. She is most definitely not the kind of woman to go breaking the law. Her two children, Bee, and her younger brother David are either slap bang in the middle of rebellious late adolescence or about to enter that state. They both hold their mother in slight or extreme contempt, precisely because she is so very conventional.
Bee has begun some kind of liaison with a most unsuitable older man. He is married, but that is far from the only unsuitable thing about him. Nothing has really happened, but he is not the sort of man Bee should be involved with, and Lucia, conventional though she may be, is prepared to be tigerish in defence of her children. She has had some kind of a warning show down with Ted Darby, the unsuitable man, to try to persuade him against seeing Bee.
Darby has other plans however, and is using Bee for his own ends. And others may be using Darby for their particular reasons.
Through her connection to her children, conventional Lucia finds herself embroiled with the kind of people she would never normally meet – a criminal world.
Holding is really exploring what might make anyone cross over to the other side of the law, and the tension gets turned up and continues to rise precisely because Lucia IS so law abiding and conventional by nature and nurture, so she is constantly shocked by herself, discovering that the person she always thought she was is not the person she really is, when pushed to the limits.
This is the kind of crime writing I enjoy most – the psychology of ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations. Holding is superb on relationship, superb on characterisation; it is these that drive plot. She does not dwell in loving detail on the gruesome grisly blow by blow accounts of violence, the vulnerability of damaged flesh; her interest is in the ensuing vulnerability of psyche.
This book, republished by the excellent Persephone Press, gave rise to not one, but two noir films:
Firstly, 1949’s Max Ophuls’ film, The Reckless Moment starring Joan Bennett as Lucia, and the wonderful James Mason as Martin Donnelly, one of the wider circle associated with Ted Darby, who is central in the story. The film exists in sections on You Tube, here is the first of 6
A very loose adaptation, updated for a more modern audience was released as The Deep End in 2001. Starring Tilda Swinton and directed by David Siegal and Scott McGehie the story now concerns a mother whose teenage son, not daughter, is having a relationship with the unsuitable older man with shady connections
I found Holding’s book taut, well written and absorbing. If at times Lucia’s conventional passivity was frustrating, and her sense of herself involved in things a woman like her just doesn’t do, that is purely down to the fact that these times are different from those times, and Lucia’s conventional naiveté would have been normal and expected.