THE HORIZONTAL MAN (1946) by Helen Eustis

Phew! By the skin of my teeth I’ve managed to complete the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge. To celebrate, and as my last blog post until late January, here is my (short) review of Helen Eustis’ influential Edgar-winning debut. Set in postwar Connecticut, protagonist Kate Innes is galvanised into detection by the murder of Kevin Boyle, one of her colleagues at Hollymount College, the all girls’ school where the now dead lothario had loved neither wisely nor well among a cast of sad and very, very mixed up people.

“Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.”- W.H. Auden

Eustis orchestrates her plot with great cunning as we find out which woman bashed in Boyle’s head with a poker to deliver a very famous surprise ending, one that Anthony Boucher called,

“… a highpoint in modern murder … the trickiest bit of strict ‘fair play’ since Dr Shepherd told of the murder of Roger Ackroyd”

Eustis-Horizontal-avonHaving said that, this investigation into the skeletons in the various closets of the highly neurotic staff and students at the fictional Hollymount College (based partly on Smith, where Eustis’s first husband taught, and maybe also on Holyoke), relies for its success on an  exercise in authorial misdirection that uses elements that perhaps no longer have time on their side. Her interest in abnormal psychology would be exploited to even better effect in the mystery field by Margaret Millar and Robert Bloch in the 50s and later still by Richard Neely, so the surprise element may undeniably be blunted for well-read genre fans. It is also true that Eustis does seem to slightly unbalance the book – as put so succinctly by Bruce F. Murphy, this is a book that at times “suffers from too many sleuths and too few suspects”, with Boyle’s death investigated not just by Innes but also by reporter Jack Donnelly, psychiatrist Julian Frostmann and librarian Leonard Marks. The characters are often unsympathetic but plausible it seems to me in the context of hothouse atmosphere of the College – and in addition I still find the author’s prose style very sharp indeed. To say too much about the plot of this long and complex mystery would be unfair but this is still and important and groundbreaking mystery, delving into the then largely uncharted terrain of dark psychology and remains for me a classic of its kind – nearly 70 years after its debut it is still alive and kicking. Well worth picking up a copy.

For additional insight into the book and for a slightly contrary view of its merits, I recommend you read JF Norris’ review over at his Pretty Sinister Book blog here. John is a persuasive and astute commentator and knows the ins and outs of this field far better than I – you may even find he changes your mind about this book, though you should probably stay away from reading the review until you have indeed finished the novel.

This is my final review, in the Lethal Locations (School) subcategory, for the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, completing my plan to read pre-1960 mysteries in three categories: 8 by women authors, 8 featuring amnesia and memory loss as a theme and 8 set in schools or involving education. Here are the links to my other reviews:

Murderous Miscellany: Amnesia

  1. Nightmare (1940) by Cornell Woolrich
  2. Traitor’s Purse (1941) by Margery Allingham
  3. The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr
  4. The Scarf (1947 / 1966) by Robert Bloch
  5. The Long Wait (1951) by Mickey Spillane
  6. Fallen Angel (1952) by Walter Ericson (aka Howard Fast)
  7. Queen in Danger (1952) by Adam Hall
  8. Night Walker (1954) by Donald Hamilton

Golden Age Girls

  1. Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) by Georgette Heyer
  2. Unfinished Portrait (1934) by Agatha Christie
  3. The G-String Murders (1941) by Gypsy Rose Lee
  4. The House (1947) by Hilda Lawrence
  5. Brat Farrar (1949) by Josephine Tey
  6. Do Evil in Return (1950) by Margaret Millar
  7. The Tiger Among Us (1957) by Leigh Brackett
  8. The April Robin Murder Case (1959) by Craig Rice (and Ed McBain)

Lethal Locations: School

  1. Murder at School by (1931) by James Hilton
  2. Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by TH White
  3. Murder at Cambridge (1932) by Q Patrick
  4. Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer
  5. Reunion with Murder (1942) by Timothy Fuller
  6. The Wench is Dead (1955) by Fredric Brown
  7. Landscape with Dead Dons (1956) by Robert Robinson

I would like to offer my sincere thanks to that avid reader and blogger Bev of the My Reader’s Block for letting us all take part in her highly challenging challenge.

This is going to be my last post for a month or so but I hope to be back by the end of January – have a great New Year, wherever you are.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Amnesia, Campus Crime, Five Star review, Golden Age Girls, Margaret Millar, New York, Robert Bloch, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to THE HORIZONTAL MAN (1946) by Helen Eustis

  1. Patrick says:

    Sergio, I can only imagine a man in the 1940s, wearing a suit, fedora on his hand, both hands holding a radio microphone as he stands up and watched the exciting race to the finish line! Congrats on having made it! And hopefully you enjoy your month-or-so off!

  2. Sergio – Well done on finishing the Vintage challenge! I give you a lot of credit! And thanks for this review, too. Doesn’t matter if there are other, contrary, views out there. Yours is clearly articulated and interesting. That’s what matters.

  3. Another great review, Sergio. Have a good break.

  4. TracyK says:

    Congratulations for reading 24 vintage books for the challenge. This one sounds worth a read; the academic setting is interesting. I will keep an eye open for it. I recently finished a short book with an academic setting that I enjoyed: One Coffee With by Margaret Maron.

    • Thanks TracyK – I first read it decades ago but I’m glad to say it still holds up as a dark and bitchy campus mystery written in great style. I haven’t read anything by Maron yet actually, thanks for the tip, though admittedly I may steer clear of academic mysteries for a while now. Have a great 2013.

  5. Sergio, congratulations on the 11th hour finish! And with a review of a book that’s been sitting on my TBR pile for a while (you have to know that the academic setting would have enticed me!). 24 books sets you up for an instant win! I’ll send you the prize list. Have a good break and a happy new year!

    • Thanks very much Bev – it was great fun (though I wish it hadn’t been quite so down to the wire!) – thanks, as always, for looking after us so well.

      All the best, Sergio

  6. I read THE HORIZONTAL MAN ages ago, Sergio, but your review tempts me to drop everything and read it again! Helen Eustis never succeeded with a better book.

  7. Way to go, Sergio! The 24 books you read for the Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge are really something, a delectable list of authors and their mysteries. Have a good month and a great year too.

  8. Yvette says:

    I’m adding the title to my list for this new year, Sergio. Thanks for another intriguing review. I’m also feeling a bit chipper because I’ve actually read and liked a couple of the titles on your Challenge list. I began the challenge myself but lost track somewhere along the way. I must especially thank you for introducing me to DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY, one of my favorite books of 2012. :)

  9. Ela says:

    That sounds really interesting. I do like crime novels set in academic surroundings: Gladys Mitchell wrote a few, for example, and the last of Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways novels is set at a fictional US university.

    • Thsi is one is pretty bitchy and definitely belongs to the postwar world – it’s a bit of a one-off but I think it’s pretty great – thanks very much for the feedback Ela.

  10. Anne H says:

    The first Robert Barnard, Death of an Old Goat, is set in a provincial Australian university just like the one where he lectured for a short while.. As he’s still extant and writing I assume he wrote it after he left the country. He was much nicer about Norway in the one he set there after a similar sojourn.
    I believe Professor J I M Stewart didn’t think much of us either, but was too polite to say so in his guise of Michael Innes.

    • Thanks for that Anne H – well, the ‘campus novel as revenge’ scenario is certainly a popular one – I haven’t read a lot of Barnard lately actually, thanks for the reminder, it’s been ages (whenever SCANDAL IN BELGRAVIA came out probably … scary)

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