FFB: The Blank Wall – Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

the-blank-wallTHE BLANK WALL (1947)

I taught Sanxay Holding’s novel in my crime fiction class this term. It’s amazing to me that the author Raymond Chandler called “the top suspense writer of them all” could be so neglected in our time. The Blank Wall demonstrates well Sanxay Holding’s skill and subtlety as well as her ability to tighten the noose of suspense.

The Blank Wall follows the fate of a wife on her own, trying to protect her family while her husband is away in the war on an aircraft carrier. The family has been moved to the wilds of the Connecticut shore and Lucia Holley is having a hard time adjusting to the isolation of suburbia. She’s also concerned about the sleazy older guy who’s putting the moves on her art school daughter. Holley is that most neglected of characters: the housewife. Her contempt for her own unremarkable nature is reflected by her family. Her father who still wishes he were back in the RAF; her daughter who thinks the worst possible fate is to end up like her mother and her exasperated fifteen year old son who condescendingly tries to boss her around.

When Lucia is thrown into a dark world of murder, blackmail and gangsters and nearly drowns. She gets lifelines from her black housekeeper Sybil and Donnelly, an Irish gangster who wanted to be a priest, but her family does its best to destroy her. In the midst of crisis, Lucia gets a startling glimpse of the privilege she nonetheless maintains when she discovers that Sybil is not only married, but to a man who’s spending 18 years in prison for hitting a man that hit him. She, too, married a sailor, dreaming of travel: “And Paris. Bill told me it’s all true about Paris. Colored people can go anywhere, see all the sights.”

Some great quotes:

If only I was one of those wise, humorous, tolerant mothers in plays and books.

She was looking now for a half-remembered place, so far from nice that no one would be likely to go there. It would be dreadful if a child were to find him, she thought.

I’m just going to take a little drive with a blackmailer, she thought. It’s–hard to believe.

It made her want to cry; she did begin to cry a little. But that had to be stopped. 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.

Let the children be shocked. Let them be exasperating, and offensive, anything at all. Anything was better than that they should know the truth.

Good heavens! Can’t I even go into town, without all this silly fuss? I’m not a child or an idiot. I’m not a slave, either.

I wonder if there are any women prowlers?

He gave her a quick sidelong look. “No,” he said. “You could not kill anyone.”

“There is nothing I would not do for you,” he said. “Nothing in the world.” She lowered her eyes, not to see the look in his face.

I’m  like a doll, she thought. I’m not real. As she sat at dinner with her family, this sense of unreality became almost frightening.

“Holy Mother of God!” said Donnelly. “There was never another like you in the world.”

You get to the end of the tether, but nothing happens. The rope doesn’t break; it doesn’t choke you to death.

The book has been filmed twice. I’ve see this version and it’s good though it has quite a few changes :

A great write up of Sanxay Holding’s work by Jake Hinkson

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog


11 thoughts on “FFB: The Blank Wall – Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

  1. I discovered Holding’s work a couple of years ago with this book, and have steadily been reading more of her novels — most recently her Speak of the Devil, which I enjoyed if anything even more than this one.

      1. I want to read them all!

        Same here! Stark House have reissued a few, and there are some in ebook form on Munsey’s and Google Books.

  2. Oh, Speak of the Devil isn’t one of the ones I found as an ebook: I ordered it from the library. It came all the way from the library at Bangor, Maine . . . which made me wonder if a certain local author might also be a Holding fan.

  3. Hughes is on my hitlist too . . . but at least I’d heard of her. I was just staggered that, until a couple of years ago, I’d been completely ignorant of the very existence of a writer as significant as Holding.

    1. No kidding, right? And Millar, too. I’ve been so bowled over by these women and so furious at their neglect. Almost convinced myself to write a book about them (in my abundant free time…)

      1. Millar I knew about — I read a lot of her books in my youth.

        Almost convinced myself to write a book about them

        Have there not been any?

  4. Not that I’ve come across, so perhaps I’m either looking in the wrong places or they’re out of print. They don’t get the adulation that Hammett and Chandler do.

    1. I suppose S Weinman would know, but I don’t know her to ask. (Hm: moderately surprised she hasn’t done one herself . . .)

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