Friday, February 14, 2014

The Godmother of Noir: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding JAKE HINKSON

The Godmother of Noir: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Ed here: One of the reasons I'm such a fan of Jake Hinkson's fiction and non-fiction is because they're informed by tropes and styles that work away from the standard material we see so much of today. His championing of Margaret Millar and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding tells you that he's a man we should listen to if we really love and admire noir as a form.we don'tt see
Jake Hinkson:

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.
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