Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding x 2: Widow's Mite and Who's Afraid?

Stark House Press, 2018
263 pp


As always, I have to begin by thanking the lovely people at Stark House Press for my copy of this book.  The work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is not very well known among today's crime/mystery readers, but Stark House has made a great effort to get her work out there, publishing a whopping sixteen of her mystery novels (of which I plan to buy the eleven I don't have) in volumes consisting of two novels each. 

It is genuinely a shame that this author's work has been left to fade into obscurity.  She was championed by the great Raymond Chandler who said, as we learn from The Guardian,  that for his money, "she's the top suspense writer of them all," and that "Her characters are wonderful."   Writing in the introduction to this book, Gregory Shepard notes that Holding is
"the precursor to the entire women's psychological suspense genre, and authors like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell owe her a very large debt of gratitude."  
And indeed, we do.  I was looking over Amazon reviews of some of Holding's novels, and there was one that complained that Holding should "show, not tell," which sort of threw me for a loop for a minute, since evidently the reader didn't read carefully or just plain missed the point.  Holding shows plenty, but it's what goes on in the minds of her characters that holds the most importance in her stories -- as the intro says, it's the "psychological underpinnings" that "form the basis of the mystery."  I easily figured that out on my own while reading, since I didn't read this book's introduction until I'd turned the last page.  And without getting too deep into either, both novels in this volume center on the old adage of "oh what a tangled web we weave ..." with  the respective main characters hedging about telling the truth about what they know about the crimes.   They each have their own motivations for doing so and their lies send them down a rather slippery slope, but again, while they know that (quoting the introduction again) that " 'There ought to be simply a right thing to do, or a wrong thing,' ..." Holding knows human nature well enough that she also realizes that "this is never the case, that it's never that simple."

from Pop Sensation

In Widow's Mite (originally published 1953),  single mom/widow Tilly MacDonald is at the home of her cousin Sibyl Fleming with her young son Robert.  Sibyl is high strung, she isn't the nicest of people, and Tilly is dreading the thought of being alone with her, especially after Sibyl knocks back a few drinks when she would
"either cry, about the ingratitude, the treachery, the intrigues against her, or she would become arrogant and domineering."
 On the particular day that begins this novel, Sibyl decides she needs a nap, and despite Tilly's warning to the contrary, also decides that she needs to have one of her pills to help her sleep.  There's one left, so Tilly hands it over and Sibyl falls asleep pretty much right away.  Tilly's surprised that it took so little time for the pill to work, but she goes out to be with her son Robert before the arrival of other guests at the house.  But later, in the middle of the party, when someone goes to check on Sibyl who hasn't come downstairs yet, they discover that Sibyl's not asleep, but dead.  When the police arrive, and  Tilly learns that Sibyl's death came about as a result of cyanide poisoning, she's in a quandary -- if she reveals that it was she who gave Sibyl that last pill, the police might believe she had killed her, and then who would be left to take care of her little boy?  It doesn't help that other weirdness is going on all around her, done by someone intent on putting the blame on her shoulders.  And of course, there's much much more in this novel that touches on other issues, with parenting high on the list.

from Pop Sensation

This old cover of Who's Afraid (1940) says without words exactly what's going on this book, expressing what I thought the main character was going through during the course of this story.  Never mind that once again we find ourselves with a woman who has information relevant to a murder and doesn't speak up; in this book, deception is the rule of the game.  Miss Susie Alban,
age twenty-one, hasn't had much luck in finding a job; that all changes when she responds to an advertisement for a "Young lady, with unquestionable social and cultural background."  She is found by her prospective employer, Mr. Chiswick, to be "exactly the type he had had in mind" for the job, which was to sell his correspondence course, which "offered to the Women of America a system for developing the individual charm that lies dormant in each of you."  Gateways is the name of program, and the job requires Susie to travel to different cities and sell the program to the more prominent women of the area.   On her first outing, she is on the train to South Fairfield where she meets four different men who show her attention; she is convinced to change hotel plans and instead stay at a local boarding house.  All seems well, right up until the moment when the group leaves the train, when we read this:
"I'll have to get rid of this girl, one of the four men in the car was thinking."
And oh, did I ever perk up here.  Note -- there's no name, no description except for "one of the four men in the car," so we have our first mystery. Who is speaking, and why does he feel a need to "get rid of this girl?"  But wait, there's more.  The first appointment scheduled for Susie is at the home of a Mrs. Person, who along with her husband Mr. Person, doesn't seem too put out to see her, that is, right up until she mentions the name of her employer, Mr. Chiswick.  At that moment, Mr. Person screams at her to get out, threatening to kill Mr. Chiswick before he slams the door. Walking home in the dark, Susie meets up with one of the men she'd met earlier on the train but only after she stumbles upon a body lying near the trees on the side of the road, whom, it turns out, is the same Mr. Person that had so rudely thrown her out.  While the landlord of Susie's boarding house gets pinned for the crime, Susie holds information that she decides against giving to the police, and makes her way to the next town on her schedule, where once again her prospective client goes crazy with the mention of Mr. Chiswick, and once again she meets up with the men she'd met on the train.  But which of them is the killer? Why is he following her?  Why will she not believe that she is in some sort of danger even though she is told more than once?  And what's up with the mysterious Mr. Chiswick?   The answers to these questions will absolutely not be divulged until the very end.

Who's Afraid? is my favorite of the two, although both seriously and most intensely held me until the last pages.  I'll admit that in the cases of both women, I found myself almost yelling at the pages because I was so completely frustrated at times, thinking "why don't you just listen?" or "just tell and get it over with."  But Sanxay Holding's not going to let us off so easily here and that's the key to reading her work -- it's all about what's in our characters' heads and all about how their decisions take them nearly to the point of no return, usually at some sort of personal peril or some sort of consequence to the people in their immediate orbit.   Quite honestly, I love her books so far -- they may seem somewhat tame in comparison of those of Highsmith or Rendell, but then again, it's very easy to see how she laid the foundations for their work with her own. And now that Stark House Press has made her books once more available, serious crime readers are fortunate to have easy access to them.  This woman's legacy and her books deserve much more than to remain  sadly forgotten and unread.

Highly recommended.

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