Saturday, February 14, 2015

a double blast from the past: The Punt Murder, by Aceituna Griffin and Miasma, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Back to exploring more obscure women crime writers, I ran across two books that have luckily been reprinted to make them widely available to modern readers.  One, The Punt Murder, is set in Britain's interwar period and  Miasma takes us to America in at the end of the 1920s. They are as different as night and day, and while both made for enjoyable reading, Miasma has that dark edge that I absolutely love to find in a crime or mystery novel.

Ostara Publishing, 2007
192 pp

originally published 1936
Sadly, I can't find much about this woman except for a) the fact that she was born in 1876 and died in 1949 and b) the list of the dozen books she's written, which can be found here. Otherwise, her life (to me anyway) is as mysterious as the identity of the killer in this book.  The Punt Murder takes a while to get to the actual crime; in the meantime the author does a great job establishing the scene and more importantly, the characters. It is, like many of the books I've read so far that have come out of the interwar novels, an English country house murder set in a small village.  I am really interested in this phenomenon of the English country house murder, especially those set in rural villages -- and I recently ran across an article written by Peter Dickinson that touches on why these were so popular.  You can read it in full here; one of the most interesting things he states is that
"... the ideal setting for the mystery novel is the imaginary world of the country house. There, supposed balance and harmony is broken by the act of violence, just as in the real world it had been broken by the war. That is why the ideal murderee is the nouveau riche millionaire, the embodiment of the economic upheavals, contrasted with the dwindling resources that had kept the grand old families going". 
I've been wondering about why so little is put into these novels about  the social/economic upheavals of the time -- and now after reading this (and some other things I've been perusing)  I'm beginning to understand. Anyway, the "nouveau riche millionaire...contrasted with the dwindling resources" of the "grand old families" is at the very heart and soul of The Punt Murder, of which the main character is an incredibly wealthy but very young heiress who marries into a very old but now broke British family.  Her name is Merle Holroyd, wife of the squire of Wissingham.  The family home, naturally called Holroyd, was given over to the family by Henry the Eighth although it had been around long before Henry's time.  It isn't long until fireworks start to fly as the traditional world of village squire collides with the modern, as Merle refuses to conform -- and her greatest weapon is the huge inheritance she's brought with her into the marriage. When she realizes the truth behind her marriage, she looks to another for happiness; sadly, the man she has latched on to is an up and coming MP whose career cannot tolerate any scandal.  Soon, however, there's a murder during a  lavish fete, and while the police are satisfied with their choice of suspect, one person has the wherewithal to ask questions, which upsets everyone in the village. With no shortage of suspects, things start to get ugly very quickly.

Moving backward in time, Miasma was published in 1929 and has (luckily for me) been reprinted by Stark House Press, whose motto is "Bring back the mystery." I stumbled onto this small press quite by accident one day, and their list of reprinted vintage crime novels is impressive.

Stark House Press, 2003
269 pp (the full book, which also contains her book Lady Killer)


Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was born in 1889 and died in 1955, and during her lifetime she seems to have been a prolific author. She was the wife of British diplomat George E. Holding, and was the author of 25 novels of which 18 were mysteries; Miasma was her first mystery novel. Her mystery-writing career took off during the Depression when her "serious character novels" stopped selling and she turned to crime writing.   As Greg Shephard notes in his introduction to this edition, she was
"one of the first to write mystery novels that didn't so much ask whodunit, but whydunit,"
and that was the big sell for me in deciding on this author. The whodunits, while fun, are so done to death that I'm much happier finding out the whys rather than the who. Miasma appeals to me on multiple levels -- first, it's one of those stories that I absolutely love where some poor, hapless dope gets caught up in a situation that is much bigger than himself, and only comes to realize very slowly that he's pretty much been painted into a corner and needs to try to find a way out. Here, the main character is a young doctor who is trying to establish himself; he isn't having much luck and is overly frustrated because he will not marry the girl he loves until he can prove himself worthy financially and otherwise.  Second, one of the big questions this book asks is about the nature of justice, a topic I widely explore in my reading.  As the main character asks at one critical point in this story,
"Does it matter? Or can't Justice be satisfied without the whole show -- the judge in the black cap, and the newspaper stories?" 
Third, this book is so claustrophobically dark that it's one I had to put down from time to time just to get out of this very small world in which the main character finds himself -- in this sense, the title is very appropriate. And considering it was written in the late 1920s, it deals with a subject that is of contemporary interest, although I won't say exactly what it is so as to avoid spoilers.

Miasma is the story of Doctor Alex Dennison, who is ready to establish his own medical practice. Before moving to the town of Shayne, he did a lot of careful research to make sure that there "was room for another doctor" there.  He so wants for everything to go right with his career, largely because of Evie, the girl he's planning on marrying, but only after he's made the three thousand a year Evie's decided will be enough for them.  But Dennison's attempt at a practice fails big time and he's virtually on the edge of starving when he decides to take up an offer from another, more well-known physician in town, Dr. Weatherby.  He doesn't have to do much -- see a few patients when Weatherby's busy or away, and he is invited to live in the fine home where Weatherby also houses his practice.  It's a win-win ... he's calculated that he will reach his financial goals easily, and room and board are free.  But as soon as he steps into the house, he has the feeling that something is not exactly right -- that things are a bit off-kilter.  This is a feeling he ignores and when strange things start happening, he goes deep within himself to look for plausible answers, a strategy that works...for a while.

To say that this is a good book is putting it mildly, but then again, I suppose it depends on what "a good book" is to people besides myself. This book has a focus on character much more so than plot -- and although it might feel like it's slow moving, it's one of the better character-based mystery novels I've encountered.   I was impressed with the author's ability to get right inside of Dennison's head from the outset -- nothing, absolutely nothing happens outside of what Dennison sees or more importantly, what he thinks, even though this story is not related as a first-person narrative.  That fact is impressive -- the telling almost reminds me  of something from Patricia Highsmith, although it's not nearly as dark as her work.  Dennison is in a constant battle with himself internally -- and it plays out rather realistically on the page. Frankly, I was hooked on page one and had I not put the book down here and there I easily could have been depressed being so much confined to Dennison's constant headspeak. Then again, that claustrophobia-like atmosphere sets this book apart from the standard crime fare -- a trait that to me, speaks very highly of this author.

So, to recap: there's one whodunit, which is pretty good and which also takes on the intrusion of the modern world into Britain's rigid class system in which appearances are everything, and then there's the "whydunit," my own personal preference in choice of crime/mystery fiction, which immediately immerses the reader inside the mind of a poor, down-on-his-luck guy just looking to do right by everyone, except, possibly, himself.  The Holding is my favorite of the two but both are well worth looking into for anyone who likes vintage crime or mystery.  And one more thing ... Miasma comes in a volume with two complete novels, as do her other works reprinted by Stark House Press, but I'm reading them in chronological order rather than as they appear in the books.

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