BWW Review: WOMEN CRIME WRITERS: FOUR SUSPENSE NOVELS OF THE 1940s Fills a Void
The latest benefit to readers in the stage of enlightenment exemplified by the Library of America's expanding coverage of post-war pulp is the new two-volume collection devoted to Women Crime Writers, the first of which covers the 1940s. As benefits go, it's not a small one.
The four women represented in this first volume (Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding), shared a clean, uncluttered approach to style, devoid of pretense or mannerism, and a preference for psychology and claustrophobic paranoia over tricky plotting or the myth-making tendencies of the era's male giants. Within this shadow domain, they each, to one degree or other, took the true test of great pulp: How much can you say with the fewest number of words taking up the fewest number of pages?
Each passed with flying colors, though, inevitably, some flew higher than others.
The first entry in the collection, Caspary's Laura, has the disadvantage of competing with a faithfully rendered classic film adaptation known to millions. It's still a compelling read and a fine introduction to the concepts threading this volume together, but I was almost sorry to be so familiar with the film. Knowing the story too well, I found myself more interested in the way Caspary deftly shifts perspectives, a clean jump away from the common tradition of seeing everything (or nearly) from the detective's point of view, which is here enhanced by having the detective fall in love with his case's putative victim.
The trick, and it's a neat one, is that it's done convincingly.
Barely sketched, the detective still comes off as having human dimension, a quality that eluded a number of fine series' detectives in the decades prior and since, and shows here most clearly when his investigation's "victim" comes back to life:
"You don't talk like a detective., either."
"Neither hard-boiled nor scientific?"
We laughed. A girl had died. Her body had lain on the floor of the room. That is how Laura and I met.
That's psychological acuity delivered with a terseness and economy the second novel here, Eustis's The Horizontal Man, could have used a little more of. To my taste, at least, it's the least impressive selection here, though it still has plenty to recommend it.
I didn't find it very engaging as either a murder mystery or a psychological study (though I grant that Eustis may have fallen a proverbial victim to once-novel ideas becoming overfamiliar). And none of the characters made a strong enough impression to stand out from the crowd. I also saw the end coming. But the bigger problem was that I didn't much care what happened to who. Even when the most sympathetic character stops wallowing in self-pity and reveals herself as the only person in the story whose psyche isn't trapped in amber-"I thought I'd stop being dead," she finally says, and it's the biggest surprise in the book-Eustis pulls the punch. Having brought the character thus far, she drops her over the side and takes her no further. The story heads straight back into less interesting places.
That said, The Horizontal Man is still a finely drawn social portrait of life at a small, elite college, a closed world where the deepest cut is the careless word....especially if it's an honest one.
"He never," she said, "mentioned quarreling with me?"
"Oh, Mrs. Cramm," assured Leonard, "we never discussed you at all!"
I've read a few novels purporting to catch the tenor of cloistered academia in my time. Most of them took several hundred pages to say no more than you can find in that little exchange between a diva-esque woman, eternally assured of her own importance, and a milquetoast professor, assured of nothing except his own desire to please.
The quoted passages are models of concision. Both Caspary and Eustis were spare, clean stylists, unlikely to waste words.
Compared to Hughes and Holding, they were windbags.
The collection really began to impose itself on my settled ideas of what this sort of fiction can accomplish with Hughes' In a Lonely Place. Like Laura, it inspired a genuinely great classic film, this one starring Humphrey Bogart. But, disturbing as Bogart and the movie were, it's impossible to imagine that Golden Age Hollywood would have ever allowed the main character, Dix Steele, to remain Hughes' straightforward portrayal of a true psychopath and still be a vehicle for a major star.
One can see their point. Even with the ensuing decades having transformed such characters into pure cliche, along the lines of a French maid or an eccentric uncle, being inserted directly into the mind of Dix Steele and left there for the duration is still genuinely unsettling:
Dix lit a cigarette and also surveyed the room. Nice people, healthy and wealthy. Normal as you and me. Normal as Sylvia when she didn't have the megrims. But you didn't know what was beneath the beach-tanned faces and simple expensive clothes. You didn't ever know about thoughts.
And that's just it. He doesn't know. But, in any given moment, he's likely to have a very strong opinion, which is almost bound to contradict the opinion he held the minute before and serve as no very useful basis for how he will feel in the minutes to come.<
Given the conventions of the day--Patricia Highsmith, who is represented in the companion volume devoted to the 1950s, and who was standing on much taller shoulders than I had previously assumed, was still a few years away--I knew Steele would be caught.
But I didn't know how.
And I didn't know if it would matter.
He knew the absurdity of his reaction: he had a woman, a far richer woman than this. He had no need of Sylvia, and yet there was a need, the sensual need of pitting his mind against the mind of another.
This precise need turns out to be the very specific means of his downfall, but, like the entire book, the passage suggests that even murder-will-out inevitability will come more as a relief than a comfort. This monster's been taken out, but how many others are out there, permanently disoriented by their inability to "know about thoughts?"
Especially given that Hughes was easily the most familiar name in this volume, I didn't think it could get better.
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's concluding novel manages it.
The Blank Wall has a similar narrative structure to In a Lonely Place: A single perspective dealing with a series of events which leaves the protagonist twisting and turning, this way and that, hoping to avoid detection.
Except in this case the perspective of the psychopath has been replaces by that of a housewife--two kids, her father, a husband in a war zone with whom she is forever exchanging bland, reassuring letters--trying to cover up, not even a crime, but an accident, in which she was not directly involved, but which her sense of both propriety and sin compels her to treat as though she were.
All of which means that, like Dix Steele, Lucia Holley seems bound to be caught--and, unlike Dix Steele, we don't want her to be. Add to that an emotional state that is becoming more fragile by the breath, and which threatens her from within even more persistently than fear of discovery threatens her from without, and you have a stately portrait of genteel, pre-suburban air, filled with almost unbearable tension.
The novel begins firmly grounded in a reasonable, prosaic realism, with scenes like this one predominating:
"You're a much better marketer than I am," Lucia said.
"My business to be so," said Sibyl, quietly. "But the chicken man don't like colored people. Don't hesitate to say so."
"Has he ever said anything to you Sibyl?"
"Yes ma'am," said Sibyl.
"We won't deal with him any more," said Lucia.
"He's the only one got any chickens," said Sibyl.
And proceeds, step by reasonable step, into nightmare:
"I'd just as soon be dead, as have a life like you," a typically petulant teenage daughter yells. A few pages later, Lucia is confronted by a calm, perfectly reasonable man who is saying:
"The letters your daughter wrote to Ted Darby....The price is five thousand dollars. Cash."
You think that's as tight as the screw can turn, but it's barely a beginning.
"Someone would come and see her. Someone always came. There was always a knock at the door. Everyone had a right to come to her; that was what she was for, that was her function, her reason for being. There was never an hour that belonged to her."
Pretty soon, dealing with dead bodies is basically a home management problem--worries about her son reaching draft age before the war is over are honeycombed with the logistics of wealing with a blackmailer who is on his sway to becoming her salvation, just as she is on her way to becoming his damnation:
"If Bee comes back and finds the dishes in the sink...Even unsuspicious Father would think that was queer...What reason can I give anyone for running out of the house?"
All of this is underlain by Lucia's sense of sin, which is genuine and, like a lot of genuine emotions that now seem exotic to so many, more powerful for being artlessly rendered, in a style consistent with a mind grappling with contradictions it can't contain:
"It's a sin. What I did to Ted Darby was illegal. I dare say it was foolhardy. But this is a sin."
That air of sin isn't necessarily breathed in deep. Its potentcy lies in remaining on the surface, nagging, not so much a representation of what Lucia actually feels as of what she believes the ought to feel.
And what she "ought" to feel, brings an exceptionally oppressive, and eventually poignant aura, spreading chapter by chapter, to lines like "The walls of her home were falling down; there was no refuge." When she finally lets loose, yells a simple "God damn it!," it's more shocking than any murder, even in our jaded age, doubly so because there is no way to tell if it represents surrender or release, real damnation or false deliverance.
Any good novelist can put lives at stake. The very best novels put souls at stake. What happens to Lucia Holley in purely physical or legal terms is knowable simply by finishing the last page of The Blank Wall. What happens to her spiritually is a mystery that seems to reside within the taut structure of the surface details rendered so carefully throughout, promising resolution--and then remains tantalizingly out of reach when the novel, and the fine collection it brilliantly concludes, finally reach the end.