A belated Fedora welcome to 2013, which this year opens with a review of this fine book by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955), who after a brief dalliance with romance novels became a specialist in psychological suspense and thrillers. The Girl Who Had to Die has just been republished – in a double bill with The Unfinished Crime, also to be reviewed here soon – by those very nice people at Stark House Press, the imprint specialising in new and classic crime fiction. So far they’ve put out ten of her books – for further details see their website: www.starkhousepress.com.
I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Wicked Women’ category. I also submit it for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog but this week hosted by Evan Lewis over at Davy Crocket’s Almanack of Mystery – you should head there right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.
“For my money she’s the top suspense writer of them all. She doesn’t pour it on and make you feel irritated. Her characters are wonderful; and she has a sort of inner calm which I find very attractive.” - Raymond Chandler in a letter to Hamish Hamilton, dated 13 October 1950.
Right from the first page of The Girl Who Had to Die it is very easy to see why Chandler was so impressed with Holding, her superb grasp of plot and character instantly coming through in a sharp and resonant voice. The narrator is John Killian, a clerk sailing home after the end of a secondment to Buenos Aires where he enjoyed a much higher standard of living and professional prestige than he had hitherto been used to – and which he knows he will greatly miss. He is something of a underachiever, constantly reproaching himself for his timidity and the repression of his every instinct to cut loose. On board he meets Jocelyn Frey, an attractive but highly neurotic woman with a strong manipulative streak and a morbid sensibility.
“Ever since I was fourteen,” she said, “I’ve known I was going to be murdered”
The two are clearly attracted to each other but he is starting to find her just a bit too high maintenance. When she tells him that she knows that there are five people who want her dead he dismisses it as merely attention-seeking and heads off to have dinner on his own, much to her displeasure. The trouble is that he really does like her and while clearly something of a flake Jocelyn is also smart and can see right through him – and everybody else she meets, which may be the real reason why John (or ‘Jocko’ as she has irritatingly nicknamed him) would now rather be rid of her. That night he learns that she has thrown herself overboard – and mixed in with shock is not a little relief that she is out of his hair. But this is only the beginning as she is quickly fished out of the Ocean alive and word soon starts to spread that he was responsible – he is quickly ostracised by the other passengers with only Chauverney the purser and his girlfriend Elly remaining friendly. They suggest that he kiss and make up with her before the situation really escalates – he goes to see Jocelyn, who says she forgives him for trying to kill her. He takes this bald untruth as mere hysterical hyperbole, which is pretty nice of him in the circumstances since practically everybody on board thinks this already.
“I don’t care of you murdered me, Jocko,” she said.
“You exaggerate things , darling. You don’t feel dead.”
Before long the two are in love again and engaged to be married. When the ship docks, at Elly’s urging, they go to stay with Luther Bell and his family at his palatial estate in New York. Killian is immediately uneasy and it soon becomes clear that Jocelyn, despite only being 19 years-old, has a powerful hold over the entire Bell family and their assorted hangers-on, including Bell’s tough young wife Sybil, affable Dr Ponievsky and his fiancée Harriet. Then Angelo, one of the ship’s staff, turns up and is offered a job by Bell, who clearly has something very serious to hide. Soon there are is an attempted suicide followed by an attempted poisoning of Jocelyn before a murder occurs – but who is truly responsible and will John’s love for the strange Jocelyn survive?
This is a terrific if very strange novel in which murder and intrigue mix with the kind of romantic entanglements of rich society people found in the writer’s early romantic novels. It is a curious hybrid, one with an almost Kafkaesque sense of menace, but mostly a highly successful one and a clear precursor to the kind of psychological suspense that we might more easily associate with Dorothy B. Hughes and Patricia Highsmith or more recently Ruth Rendell (especially when writing as Barbara Vine) and Minette Walters.
“I hate dancing,” she had told him. “Being guided around. I get in a sort of panic.”
Holding’s name doesn’t even appear in many standard reference works (she is not to be found in Symons, Murphy or the Oxford Companion for instance) but remains a writer ripe for rediscovery and I heartily recommend The Girl Who Had to Die as a strange dive into the unexpected – the finale in particular dips into the metaphysical and deserves kudos for avoiding the obvious without in any way straying from the path Holding established right from its opening page.
The book has long been unavailable and was last reprinted in the 1960s as an Ace double together with The Blank Wall, one of Holding’s most successful books, probably because it was filmed not once but twice: first in 1949 as The Reckless Moment with Joan Bennett and more recently as The Deep End with Tilda Swinton. This new omnibus edition by Stark House Press came out last week (thanks for the advance review copy guys) and includes a preface by Holding’s granddaughter and a career overview by Greg Shepard and is available directly from them and from all the usual outlets – here are the details
The Unfinished Crime / The Girl Who Had to Die
By Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
ISBN: 978-1-933586-41-0 (paperback), 225 pages, $19.95