Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Innocent Mrs. Duff by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

One of the more familiar knocks on mystery fiction is that it rarely treats death seriously. That too often murder is simply the device that propels the story and not much more. I think that's a fair criticism and I certainly include my own work as being guilty of that particular sin. Murder, even literary murder, should HURT.

I'd also add to that criticism the various addictions common to the genre, namely alcoholism and drug addiction. Only Larry Block and a few others have taken us into the real world of recovering alcoholics. For the most part addiction has become just another keystroke common to the world of mystery fiction.

I've read three novels in my life that have described accurately--in my experience as an alcoholic--the horrors of being drunk most of your life. Certainly Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, After the First Death by Larry Block and a novel you've probably never heard of, though alcoholic Raymond Chandler pushed it as one of the finest suspense novels of his time.

For some reason, much as I've pushed her here, I'd never read THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It is remarkable in many ways, not least because the protagonis. Jacob Duff is drunk for virtually the entire novel. And we see 95% of the book through his eyes. Functionally drunk for most of it but also falling-down drunk in places. Holding's genius was to sustain a sense of dread that I don't think even Ruth Rendell has equaled. There are times in her novels when I have to put the book down for a few minutes. They are that claustrophobic in mood and action.

That's the first most remarkable aspect of the book. The second most remarkable is the fact that we see the book through the eyes of one of the most arrogant, self-invoved, cold and self-deluded man I've ever encountered in fiction of any kind. I hated the bastard so much--I'm not enamored of the upper-classes, alas, and Duff embodies everything I loathe about them--I almost gave up after chapter three. I wasn't sure I wanted to learn anything more about this jerk,

But Holding has the voodoo, at least for me. She makes me turn pages faster than any best-seller because what you're rushing to discover is the fate of her people. All the good folks in this one are women, especially Duff's younger, beautiful and very decent wife. He constantly compares her unfavorably to his first wife, though we soon learn that he didn't care much for his first wife, either. At age forty he's still looking for his dream woman. God have mercy on her soul if he ever finds her.

As always with Holding, as with much of Poe, what we have is not so much a plot (though she's as good as Christie) as a phantasmagoria of despair, distrust and suspicion that consumes the protagonist. Is his wife cheating on him? Is she setting up his death so she'll inherit his estate? Is she turning his young son against him? Has his wealthy aunt, his life-long mentor and mother confessor, taken the side of his young wife? Has his drinking disgraced him in his small town and are all those smirks aimed at him? And finally, is he a murderer? And why does he have to sneak around these days to drink?

If you're curious about Holding, this is a good place to start. Anthony Boucher always said that she was the mother of all psychological suspense novelists. What's intresting is how few, fifty-some years after her death, have come close to equaling her enormous powers.


Bill Pronzini said...

Right on, Ed. When Holding was good, she was very, very good, and this may be her best novel. I've never read another one quite like it, or come across a better piece of perverse characterization than her quietly chilling portrayal of Jacob Duff.

Matt Paust said...

It's been a couple of decades since I read Under the Volcano, and I can still feel that claustrophobic dread closing in whenever that book comes to mind. I had only recently given up my heavy drinking days at the time, and the dread was probably as real for me as it was vicarious. I've been sober long enough that I might be able to read Volcano and possibly Holding with more detachment, but I'm hesitant.

George said...

I have a stack of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding books. After reading your fine review, I'm going to have to read some. Thanks for the motivation!

Martin Edwards said...

Ed, it's due to you that I've become interested in Holding. Thanks!

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds good and horrible at the same time. Sort of like TV.

Unknown said...

I'm on my third Holding novel and I really like how she deals with what you might call the "slippery slope," decisions made for what seem to be sound reasons that lead one to lies, deceit, involvement with low lifes, and finally crimes. Having read Block, Jackson's The Lost Weekend, and Under the Volcano, I appreciated her handling of Mr. Duff's alcoholism. Yes he is a jerk, but I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of much explanation for how he got that way, particularly given all his advantages. His aunt simply says he's always been that way. The Blank Wall is the better novel, though (spoiler coming) having a blackmailer take the blame for murder he didn't commit to save the protagonist because he admires (or loves) her seemed a bit far-fetched.