Friday, 26 October 2012

Forgotten Book - The Death Wish

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding is quite a memorable name, and she was quite a memorable writer, yet she is one of many talented practitoners of the past who nowadays suffer a considerable degree of neglect.  However, I know that Ed Gorman, one of the most knowledgeable of today's commentators on American crime fiction (as well as one of its most entertaining exponents) is a big fan of Holding, and I was prompted to read The Death Wish, my Forgotten Book for today, by a review on John Norris's superb blog, which constantly draws attention to neglected work of genuine quality.

John made the point in his insightful comments that, although published in 1935, this book was in some ways rather ahead of its time, given the focus on the psychological motivations of the characters.The key players are two men, an artist called Robert Whitestone and his friend Shawe Delancey, both of whom are  unhappily married. A very attractive young woman called Elsie falls for Robert, and the consequences prove to be tragic.

Holding had written a number of novels in the romance genre before she turned to crime, and I felt this was evident in her approach to the story. There isn't a great deal of action, and there were times when the behaviour and conversations of Elsie and others was rather over-wrought, to the point where I almost became irritated, in particular with Elsie. The plot didn't seem to me to be strong enough to compensate fully for this.

And yet despite my reservations, there was something about the novel that held my attention, and I certainly agree that, for its time, it was quite a notable piece of work. I didn't care for it as much as, say, Helen McCloy's debut, published three years later, but I suspect that at this point in her career, Holding was to some extent feeling her way, pushing out the boundaries in the way that talented and innovative writers do. I suspect her later books show further development, and I look forward to reading more of her work.


Ed Gorman said...

Try The Blank Wall, Martin. Holding at her best. Or any of the Holdings that Stark House has reissued. I think a scholar could make the case for her being the creator of the modern psychological novel. Raymond Chandler said she was the best suspense novelist of his era. The claustrophobic sense of dread in her finest novels is amazing. She just never let go.

J F Norris said...

I guess when I latch onto an aspect of a book that I like I tend to overlook its glaring faults. Now that you mention it there were some annoying parts to Elsie. And the opening scene of the book might be an utter turn off to a modern reader who may shut the book and never proceed further. I still think that ESH's look at a dark side to 1930s American suburbia was way ahead of its time. I also liked the two different amateur detectives in the book. People should give this one a look.

Martin Edwards said...

Ed, John, many thanks. I will indeed try The Blank Wall (and I've also got a copy of another of hers, yet to be read.) I am sure you are right both about her historical importance and general merit as a writer.