THE GIRL WHO HAD TO DIE (1940) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Holding-Unfinished-and-GirlA 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:

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.”

Holding-Girl-Who-Had-to-Die-ace-doubleBefore 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

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

This entry was posted in 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Noir, Raymond Chandler, Stark House Press. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to THE GIRL WHO HAD TO DIE (1940) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

  1. TracyK says:

    I have heard this author’s name but don’t know much else about her. This is interesting information about an author I will look out for.

    Welcome back, I have missed your posts.

  2. neer says:

    This post proves the point why I missed your posts so much. Thanks for bringing to light a forgotten author and an intriguing book.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Welcome back! What a delight to see a post from you. I hope you enjoyed your break. Thanks too for mentioning the good work by Stark House in getting some of these vintage gems back out in circulation. That is good news. Psychological thrillers like this one are reminders of why we need memes and blog posts to keep such authors on people’s minds. It’s a shame when they’re forgotten.

    • Thanks very much Margot – Harding is certainly worth re-discovering all on her own but as you say, reading and communicating online has certainly made a big difference when it comes to overlooked writers – and the likes of Stark and Rue Morgue deserve a lot of credit too.

  4. curtis evans says:

    Good article, as ever.

    Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of the novelists reviewed by Todd Downing, whose book reviews have been collected (you may have heard) in my Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The review is of the other half of your twofer, The Unfinished Crime. He liked it a lot.

    One of the things I highlight in Clues and Corpses is the lost strain of psychological crime fiction, much of it written by women, that developed in the 1930s.

    Holding, as you point out, though a key figure in this movement, has oddly received very little attention from genre historians. She’s indeed a gaping omission in Symons’ Bloody Murder. One would have thought Symons would have liked her work and at least mentioned it, given his great admiration for Highsmith, so presumably he was unfamiliar with it. She had a tougher edge to her than writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart, of whom he was very dismissive (he said Rinehart’s fiction was written for “maiden aunts”).

    Symons terms what thirties psychological crime fiction he does talk about as the “Iles School,” for Francis Iles, the pen name, as many people will know, used by Anthony Berkeley Cox when he wrote Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact. But while there’s no question these two novels are very important in the development of psychological crime fiction, there was a lot more going on, including the book by Holding.

    • Thanks Curt – given that Chandler was writing to his British publisher as late as 1950 as if she were a completely unknown quantity, I assume this means that maybe not many of her books made it across the pond? I haven;t checked though – thanks for all the marvelous extra info mate.

      • Curtis Evans says:

        Oh, no doubt. But as a history of the genre, Bloody Murder has some serious omissions in this area, including Holding. The book rather slights the place of other women authors too: Rinehart, Eberhart, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ethel Lina White for example (they at least are mentioned, Eberhart I think very briefly, but in dismissive fashion). One is left with the impression that the psychological crime novel didn’t much exist outside in the 1930s outside of Francis Iles and a few “followers.”

        • While I am not surprised by Symons not being too keen on Eberhart, I am surprised about the Holding omission given that she would, on the surface, appear to be an author he would have prized and even championed potentially which is why I wondered if the books were simply not easy to find.

          • curtis evans says:

            I can see why Symons would not like Eberhart, definitely, but I think she has to get her historical due as someone who helped shift the mystery away from an emphasis on the puzzle to one on emotions. In her day, she was called the “Atmosphere Queen” in England, to distinguish her from Freeman Wills Crofts, the “Alibi King.”

            But, yeah, Holding is more Symons’ sort of writer. I suspect too he just wasn’t familiar with her.

          • I read a few of her books some 30 years ago but never went back so can’t really comment though am probably guilty of not having persevered enough (generally not much of a fan of romance fiction shall we say, in any genre).

  5. Hi Sergio, welcome back! You marked your return with a review of a terrific novel. I downloaded the 65-page ebook at Munseys in April last year, read the initial few pages, and promptly forgot all about it. I ought to seriously consider buying an e-reader. I liked what I read of the few pages, the dialogue-centric narrative and the clipped lines that, in a way, reminded me of Vonnegut’s prose. The ebook has the second dust jacket you reproduced here, probably the original. Time I finished reading the book.

  6. Colin says:

    Great to see you back, and that’s a great piece to kick things off. I’m only familiar with the author as the inspiration for The Reckless Moment, which is a terrific movie incidentally.
    This novel sounds intriguing, and Chandler’s stamp of approval doesn’t hurt. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  7. John says:

    I got a review copy, too and read THE UNFINISHED CRIME (very much in the Highsmith vein but written decades before she was around) and then completely forgot to write a reveiw and post it. The new book was released a few days ago. Maybe I can sneak one in tomorrow. Excellent review of the other title which I read last year. She’s a real pioneer that more people should became acquainted with. With this new double I believe all of Holding’s books are available from Stark House.

    • Curtis Evans says:

      Unfinished Crime is my favorite book by her so far. I read it several years ago and remember it well. Fairly hard edge to it.

    • Thanks very much John and glad you liked this one too. Not sure you’re right about all her books being available yet from Stark House though, at least not based on the info from Stark. They say she wrote 19 suspense novels after publishing six roman / society novels and so far they have re-published ten of them – so there are either 9 more to go or I am misunderstanding (which is quite likely given the fever I’m running right know ….) – really looking forward to reading your review chum!

      • John says:

        Aha! You are right. I went to their website and checked against Holding’s bibilography. I think Stark House skipped over INNOCENT MRS DUFF and THE BLANK WALL because a reprint edition already existed. Academy Chicago, IIRC. By my count there are six crime/suspense novels not yet reprinted. But all the “biggies” are now available.

  8. Bev Hankins says:

    Yay, Sergio’s back! What a great book to lead off the new year. Holding is definitely going down on the TBR list (like I need more…..). And she’s definitely been snubbed roundly by most of the folks who write about the genre. I’ve got several reference books (still need to get my hands on Curtis’s book) and she isn’t mentioned in any of them. So I had no clue (ha!) about her till now.

    Sorry you’re not feeling well! Hope you’re soon back to feeling like your self.

  9. ACE Books published some of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s novels. Like Chandler, I found her work controlled and unique. Nice review! I need to read more Elisabeth Sanxay Holding!

  10. Rose Ardron says:

    Thanks for the great review. It’s great to read all the comments too – grandma’s legacy lives on. She worked so hard for it, as I tried to convey in the preface that I contributed. One small point – a typo at the end which has changed her name from Holding to Harding.

    • Thanks for getting in touch (and for spotting the typo – now fixed). The book was a great way to start the year for me – a really terrific find. I hope Stark House will be able to re-print many more.
      All the best,

  11. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  12. Todd Ackerman says:

    So for someone who’s never read Holding, you definitely recommend Girl Who Had To Die/Unfinished Crime as the two-in-one omnibus to pick up over Innocent Mrs. Duff/Blank Slate? Seems like I read more acclaim for the latter, but I generally like your taste and have seen both Reckless Moment and Deep End and prefer to read novels from which I haven’t already seen a movie adapted from the source.

    • Well Todd, what can I tell you, haven’t read the other two … 🙂

      • Todd Ackerman says:

        Fair enough, unrelated follow-up question: any post-’60s mysteries you can recommend in the style of the golden-age puzzle? Have no problem finding good contemporary hard-boiled and noir mysteries but not so much whodunits. I realize the sub-genre kind of died out as mysteries became more realistic but figure there are probably interesting updates on the style I’m just not aware of.

  13. Pingback: HARDBOILED, NOIR AND GOLD MEDALS by Rick Ollerman | Tipping My Fedora

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