Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: The Innocent Mrs. Duff &The Blank Wall, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991, ISBN 0-89733-366-7.
These two books are published as a reversed double volume.
The Innocent Mrs. Duff was originally published in 1946 and has 199 pages.
The Blank Wall was originally published in 1947 and has 231 pages.

The Innocent Mrs Duff
Jacob Duff is a man incapable of forming a healthy relationship with others. His attraction to his beautiful second wife, Regina (Reggie) Riordan, a former photographer's model, has turned to revulsion. For her part, Reggie is devoted to Jacob, tries to please him, and is working hard to learn to be the wife of someone with a higher social standing. Jacob is frustrated when his wealthy Aunt Lou won't see how wrong Reggie is and, in fact, both likes and defends her, urging Jacob to be fair. She tells Jacob "You don't know how to be married, Jacob. you don't like it. You're not domestic" and pointing out that he didn't much like his first wife Helen. Nonetheless, Jacob continues to find fault with everything Reggie does and is determined to find a way to get rid of her. He first tries to frame her in a compromising situation with the chauffeur but that fails badly. He finally decides that she must die.

Duff's increasingly irrational behaviour fueled by his alcoholism is nicely balanced by Reggie's bewilderment with what is going wrong in their marriage. Suspenseful, well plotted, well written.

The Blank Wall
Lucia Holley is the wife of a naval officer at sea for three years during WWII. She is living in a lake community with her teenage son, David, daughter, Bee, and father, Mr. Harper. She writes her husband Tom dull letters every night.

David, fifteen years old, is embarrassed her (she goes out in the motorboat by herself) and treats her as if she isn't capable of managing herself.

Bee, sees her life as miserably dull and is rebellious toward Lucia. She thinks her mother is old fashioned, doesn't understand anything about life, and is determined not to follow the path Lucia took in life.

Lucia is the blank wall of the title, frightened by her life and inability to move through it smoothly, and not taken seriously by her children. Her only real support comes from the maid Sibyl.

She takes up with Ted Darby, someone she sees as leading an interesting life, who knows all sorts of people. He is also married and a swindler, parts of his life of which Bee is unaware. Lucia tries to get Darby to leave Bee alone but he laughs at her. He comes to meet her in the boat house at the lake one evening but is confronted by Mr. Harper who shoves him so he falls into a boat. What Mr. Harper doesn't realize is that Darby landed on an anchor, and dies.

When Lucia finds the body, immediately decides that she must hide it. If her father found out what he did he would immediately want to take responsibility. Also why Darby was in the boat house would come out and the family would be in the tabloids. She takes the body out to a remote island in the motor boat and drags it into the marsh.

Soon a coarse man named Nagle arrives, a friend of Darby. He knows Darby was at the lake the night before and that he didn't return to the city. He implies something bad will happen if he isn't told what happened to Darby.

Things get worse when a man named Donnelly arrives at the house, in possession of letters Bee wrote to Darby. He wants $5,000 to return the letters. By today's standards the letters wouldn't be anything to worry about but then they could have ruined the young lady in society.

When Darby's body is discovered Lucia finds herself trapped between the law and a blackmailer.

This begins Lucia's struggle to save her family. She shows that there is more to her than the blank wall she presents to the world. The Blank Wall is a well written, nicely plotted story with believable and interesting characters. Lucia's personality is explored wonderfully and you want to give both her kids a smack.

The Blank Wall was turned into a movie called The Deep End staring Tilda Swindon. The screenplay maintained the noirish feel but gave the son David a homosexual experience and made him the focus of blackmail.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is another author I learned about from Megan Abbott's A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir from Busted Flush Press. The essay by Maria DiBattista says "Holding is expert in the dread that seeps through the meshes of the everyday, disarranging the neat look of things."

Does Holding have a place for today's readers? Raymond Chandler called Holding "the top suspense writer of them all" and I'd say that the stories and the writing hold up very well. I recommend both titles highly both as good reads and as examples of the craft of suspense.