by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Raymond Chandler called Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955) “the top suspense writer of them all.” And he should know … his reading intake was far more prodigious than his writing output, and Chandler made a point of keeping up to date with the genre.
She began as a writer of romance in the Twenties, but ventured into the more (at least then) lucrative arena of detective and suspense fiction when the Great Depression sunk the economy.
Of the eighteen novels she completed before her death, the most famous is probably The Blank Wall. Filmed as The Reckless Moment in ’49, an atmospheric noir starring James Mason and Joan Bennett (and directed by the legendary Max Ophuls), it was remade with a great deal less style and talent (in my opinion) as The Deep End (2001).
Chandler actually persuaded Paramount to purchase another Sanxay novel, The Innocent Mrs. Duff, and worked on its film adaptation in the spring of ’46 before parting ways over its handling … one of those great lost scripts I’d love to unearth from a vault someday.
Now, Chandler is my favorite writer, and I take his recommendations seriously. So I purchased a first edition of The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946), and found myself wondering why Patricia Highsmith is justly venerated and Sanxay Holding is largely forgotten.
A psychological suspense thriller built on a taut, perfectly structured character study, the novel ticks away like a metronome, building up an unbearable tension. One of Holding’s earlier titles was Miasma (1929), and that eponymous sense of death and decay also informs the later story.
Narrated in the first person by a middle-aged, middle-class alcoholic snob – ambitious, deluded, and utterly narcissistic – the plot and tension are driven by his growing paranoia and suspicions of the title character … his beautiful, newly-married, twenty-one year old second wife.
The book simply grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Holding can write dread as well or better than any writer … and like Shirley Jackson, her quiet moments and what Chandler calls her “inner calm” fuel a palpable sense of horror.
I’m happy to report that Academy Chicago Publishers has packaged The Blank Wall and The Innocent Mrs. Duff together in an affordable paperback. Stark House Press also offers new editions of several of her titles.
Anthony Boucher, in a New York Times review, wrote: “For subtlety, realistic conviction, incredible economy, she’s in a class by herself.” Sixty years later, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding still is.