December 03, 2012

BOOKS: The Blank Wall, Elisabeth Sanxzy Holding (1947)

This one has a story strong enough that it's been adapted for the movies twice -- in 1949 as The Reckless Moment, with Joan Bennett and James Mason; and in 2001 as The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic. (The latter was a somewhat looser adaptation.)

It's set late in World War II, when Lucia Holley is on the verge of collapse from trying to manage the household on her own (her husband is in Europe). The news that her teenage daughter has begun dating an older man doesn't help her mental state, and she starts trying to figure out a way to get him out of Bea's life. Things go wrong (as they so inevitably do in suspense novels), and suddenly Lucia's got a corpse on her hands and a death to be covered up.

Holding doesn't waste time on extraneous detail, but everything she does tell you is useful; her characters are crisply and quickly drawn, and her story moves briskly and logically from point A to point B.

Social attitudes of the day are, of course, present, but the casual sexism and racism of the late 40s are not so offensive here as to be distracting, as they can be in some novels of the era. In fact, the only real eyebrow-raising moment for me was in a moment that was surely intended to show that Lucia was, for her era, fairly enlightened -- a scene in which Lucia is surprised to realize that her housekeeper Sibyl is an actual person! With dreams and a life of her own that go beyond doing Lucia's grocery shopping! (We still occasionally get that type of scene these days, though it's more likely to be about the Hispanic nanny or gardener than the African-American housekeeper, and it always strikes me as terribly condescending.)

Can't say that I'll be rushing out to read more Holding (though there's plenty out there; her books seem to be reprinted every 15 or 20 years), but The Blank Wall is a taut and effective thriller that holds up surprisingly well after more than sixty years.

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