Lady Killer and Miasma, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Stark House, $19.95. (double volume).
If Elizabeth Sanxay Holding is known at all today, it's because her 1947 book The Blank Wall was the basis of the relatively successful art house movie, "The Deep End". But the woman who Raymond Chandler called "the top suspense writer of them all" deserves better, and even though it's unlikely that Stark House's reissue of two of her novels, Lady Killer and Miasma in one volume is going to remedy this injustice, it will at least allow the discerning reader to discover what Chandler was talking about.
Holding's forte was the psychological suspense novel, and like our time's Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, she combines relentlessly deepening suspense with deep insight into character and trenchant social criticism. Her method was usually to focus on one character, writing in the third person but revealing only the perceptions, emotions and thoughts of one person.
She uses this device to devastating effect in Lady Killer, with its heroine Honey, a not so dumb blonde ex-chorus girl who, having traded her independence for security, is on a sea cruise honeymoon with her stuffy older husband, Weaver. But this putative gold digger soon discovers that the privileged classes can be even more callous than the lower, and that there are many more sharks on board than in the sea around them.
Honey's street smarts allow her to see through her fellow passenger, the handsome Captain Lashelle, who seems to have sinister intentions toward his new wife, the love blinded self-made business tycoon Alma. Honey soon discovers, however, that a rich man's wife is expected never to make waves or think for herself, and that her only possible ally, Weaver, has become a hostile stranger with a few dangerous secrets of his own.
The result is a Hitchcock film on paper, a slowly boiling brew of suspense and surprises, with unexpected turns and complex characters that Holding resolves with a brilliant, dark ending that's of a piece with the rest.
Miasma's central character is Dr. Dennison, a young doctor on the edge of solvency trying to establish a struggling practice. His savior appears in the form of the wealthy and urbane Dr. Leatherby, but this mentor becomes more of a tempter, drawing Dennison into a morally murky world of mysterious deaths and tainted windfalls, a world in which a man's soul can be bought for the price of a decent suit. Although told from a man's point of view, Miasma, like Lady Killer, has a feminist edge, Dennison's smug assumptions about the seemingly angelic Nurse Napier and his "innocent" fiancé Evelyn leading to most of his problems.
Miasma is the earlier book by decades, and although the characters and suspense are expertly handled, the ending is not as satisfying, with Holding resorting to that most tiresome of devices, lengthy exposition at the end of a gun.
I've said before that twentieth century women who wrote non-series suspense are unjustly neglected, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding is a prime example. Today's technology has resulted in awful piles of self published garbage, but it's also allowed dedicated independent publishers to reprint great titles like these. Like independent booksellers, they're doing it for the love of books, not bucks, and for allowing us to rediscover a past master like holding, Stark House deserves our thanks and support.
To browse more reviews, use the navigation links at the top of the page.