If you trace the roots of literary noir back far enough, eventually you’ll run into the unlikely figure of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Though in recent years she has been overlooked in the rush to canonize folks such as James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, Holding was just as pivotal in the development of noir as a distinct literary genre. Like Cain and Woolrich, she didn’t write about hardnosed good guys very much. Before the term “roman noir” had even been coined, her specialty was isolated and desperate characters with profoundly poor decision-making skills.
In her time, Holding sold well and was highly regarded by her peers. No less an authority than Raymond Chandler called her “the top suspense writer of them all.” The critic Christopher Morley wrote of one of her books, “This is the kind of thing I recommend to a few like myself who find the purest refreshment in hallucinations and horrors, in damnation, dipsomania, and dismay.” And looking back on her career, the great Anthony Boucher (namesake of the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention) noted, “Before anybody had ever heard of ‘pyschological novels of suspense’ Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was writing them, and brilliantly.”
So why has she been largely forgotten today?
Well, for one thing, she struck a decidedly matriarchal figure. Born in Brooklyn in 1889, she married a British government officer named George E. Holding in 1913, she gave birth to a daughter and son and traveled around the world with her husband. Something about Holding’s life smacks, on first glance, of the cozy English mystery tradition.
Secondly, she was a woman in a distinctly masculine field—and she wasn’t a hard-living broad like Patricia Highsmith, either. She was a lady, educated at Miss Botsford’s School and Miss Whitcomb's, and a government official’s wife. By the time “noir” became a term critics were tossing around, she was a plump grandmother in her sixties.
None of that matters, though. I’d wager everything I own in the world that if you could have sidled up to Holding at some stuffy dinner party and asked her what she was really thinking the answer would have been darkly funny and perceptive.
Her books remain impressive today. Her best, undoubtedly, is the masterpiece The Blank Wall (1947). The book tells the story of Lucia Holley, a married mother of two living in a quiet coastal town in California. Without telling anyone where she’s going, one day Lucia drives the family station wagon to a cheap hotel in town to see a man named Ted Darby. He’s a shady character, all sleazy charm and insinuations, who has being seeing Lucia’s teenaged daughter, Bee. Lucia wants him to stay away from her daughter, so Darby smiles and suggests that he might be open to a little monetary persuasion. Lucia throws his offer back in his face, confident that when she tells Bee about Darby’s offer, the girl will end the relationship herself.
When Lucia discovers Darby’s dead body the next morning, however, The Blank Wall becomes truly fascinating. Lucia disposes of the corpse, unsure exactly what has transpired, but suspecting that she is covering up a murder. Once the body is found by the police, Lucia is the only one who knows what happened—up to a point, because even she doesn’t know exactly what happened. Things get worse with the arrival of a hood named Donnelly who has some love letters written by Bee to Darby. He wants cash or the letters will go to the police.
The Blank Wall is a fascinating piece of work, the story of a woman desperately trying to hold her life together and protect her child in the face of almost certain doom. The book demonstrates Holding’s great gift as a writer, a precise emphasis on the inner life of her characters. Lucia Holley doesn’t stop being Lucia Holley after the dead body shows up. She has to tend to her children, run her house, take care of an elderly parent, pine for her absent husband—all the while trying to negotiate with blackmailers and dodge the cops who are looking into the Darby murder.
The book aptly demonstrates a favorite Holding theme, the crushing weight of familial obligation. I have no sense whatsoever of what life in the Holding household was like, but family life in her books is pretty much a form of social suicide; characters are trapped by family life, surrounded but alienated at the same time.
Net Of Cobwebs (1945) tells a truly bizarre tale of a war vet with shaky nerves who becomes convinced that he’s murdered his domineering elderly aunt. The book has, in some ways, the structure of a parlor room mystery story, but one written by, say, David Goodis at his most insane. “What had he got into,” the narrator asks at one point, “what dim little hell?”
Some of her work reads as if it could have given birth to Jim Thompson’s unhinged psychos. Take her wonderfully acidic The Innocent Mrs. Duff. Like much of her work, it assumes the perspective of a hateful alcoholic with a gut full of whiskey and head full of bad ideas. Jacob Duff is a drunken son of bitch who is getting tired of his much younger trophy wife. He concocts a plan to run her off by framing her for adultery, but when it doesn’t work he starts hatching plans to get rid of her permanently.
You want to see how a great writer portrays the mind of a thoroughly repellant human being? Check out what Holding does with Jacob Duff. “He glanced at her across the table,” she writes of their breakfast one morning. “She’s beautiful, he thought with distaste.” In Jacob Duff’s mind his wife’s beauty has become grotesque. Again, we find domestic life rendered as a kind of living hell. “If I could be free,” Duff thinks at one point, “if I could get out of this situation and start over again I'd do very differently. None of this damn suburban life. None of this slavery.”
If you want to deepen your understanding of noir’s roots—and if you want to read some crackerjack storytelling along the way—find your way to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. The godmother of noir awaits you.
1. The Blank Wall—Goes up there on the list of classics alongside The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, The Long Goodbye, and A Hell Of A Woman. Also do not miss either of the excellent films that have been made from this book, 1949’s The Reckless Moment starring Joan Bennett and 2001’s The Deep End starring Tilda Swinton.
2. The Innocent Mrs. Duff—I meant the Jim Thompson comparison above.
3. Net Of Cobwebs—Trippy to the point of surrealism. But with golden lines, as when one character starts to justify her terrible actions and the narrator jumps in to observe “For who has ever looked into his own soul and condemned himself unreservedly?” That right there just about sums up noir.
4. Dark Power—Think your family is bad? Diana Leonard has a manipulative, nutjob psychologist for an aunt, a sadistic weirdo for an uncle, and a self-hating drunk for a cousin. Part mystery, part gothic horror novel, Dark Power is Holding at her nightmarish best.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.