The Blank Wall (1947) Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
(adapted as The Reckless Moment, 1949*)
Library of America
Hardcover, 171 pages
Raymond Chandler called Elisabeth Sanxay Holding the best suspense writer of them all. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, not Cornell Woolrich, not James M. Cain, not Charlotte Armstrong, and not Dorothy B. Hughes. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Having just read The Blank Wall, Chandler’s statement may very well be correct.
Lucia Holley (played by Joan Bennett in the 1949 adaptation The Reckless Moment) is a woman whose life is filled with distress. Set in New York during WWII, The Blank Wall quickly introduces us to Lucia, whose husband Tom is fighting in the Pacific. Although his absence presents Lucia with her greatest anxiety, she’s also trying to raise two teenagers, the independent Beatrice (Bee), who neither understands nor condones her mother’s “boring” life, and her kid brother David, 15, who observes everything with careful scrutiny.
But Lucia’s not alone. Her elderly father, Mr. Harper, lives with the family as does Sybil, the Holley’s African American cook and housekeeper. Not only does Tom’s absence upset the normalcy of the family, war rationing and shortages also place considerable pressure on the household. But the real pressures come from Bee’s attraction to a 35-year-old man named Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick in the film).
Early in the book, Lucia laments to herself, “I’ve made so many mistakes with Bee, even when she was a little girl. I’ve objected to her friends. I’ve been upset when she changed her mind about things. I’ve done so much better with David. If Tom was here, he’d know just what to say to Bee.” Maybe he would; Lucia certainly doesn’t. What she does say drives Bee even further into Darby’s arms.
Darby possesses all the confidence Lucia lacks, boldly arriving at the Holley’s to tell Lucia there’s nothing she can do to prevent him from seeing Bee. I won’t tell you exactly how it happens, but a fight ensues, leaving Darby dead. (This death in the film is carried out by a different character than the one in the book. The film version is more believable and dramatic, yet I can see Holding’s reasons for writing it the way she did.)
Although she’s not terribly effective in running the house, Lucia does an admirable job of disposing of Darby’s body. Just when all is relatively quiet, a man named Donnelly (James Mason in the film) comes calling. Quietly and politely, Donnelly shows Lucia one of the many letters in his possession that Bee wrote to Darby. Donnelly will be glad to hand over the letters just as soon as Lucia gives him $5,000. And if she hesitates too long, Donnelly’s associate, a nasty man named Nagel, will pay her a less-than-cordial visit.
Everything I’ve just described happens relatively early in the novel, but what I’m not telling you is how Lucia reacts to Donnelly’s “offer,” how she attempts to carry on as normal a life as possible during wartime, and how she deals with Bee. But things get more complicated when Lucia sneaks out for meetings with Donnelly over the money, leading the observant Bee to wonder if her mother is having an affair of her own.
I never really understood what it was about the film The Reckless Moment that doesn’t completely work until I read The Blank Wall. The novel allows readers to immerse themselves into the labyrinth of Lucia’s confusion by focusing more not only on the family dynamic, but also the nightmare of wartime shortages and rationing, which is hardly mentioned in the film at all. The book also breathes life into the character of Sybil, whom Lucia relies on and clings to almost desperately in the novel. The irony of this relationship stems from the fact that Lucia places the bulk of her trust and confidence in Sybil, the person in her household she knows the least. (Can she place the same trust in Donnelly to avoid Nagel?) One of the novel’s most spectacular moments occurs when Sybil relates to Lucia the story of how her husband is serving 18 years in prison and how she deals with it on a daily basis, subtly putting things in perspective for Lucia.
Of course novels frequently allow you to delve deeper into character than most films do, but Holding has crafted not only a suspenseful tale, but also an examination of relationships, race issues, moral dilemmas, gender roles, and much more. Yet at the center of the novel stands Lucia’s relationship with Donnelly, which becomes something of a Stockholm syndrome in reverse. After warning her daughter about getting involved with dangerous men, Lucia is now doing the same thing. But just what are Donnelly’s true intentions? Whatever his plan, will Nagel stop him? Will Lucia?
Holding has the uncanny ability to move quickly in passages where other writers are accustomed to lingering. We don’t need to know Lucia’s troubled thoughts during moments of crisis because Holding has done such a good job of showing her character in scenes of seemingly lesser anxiety. Rather than multiplying Lucia’s worries during these desperate situations, Holding gives us less, allowing the reader to experience the danger as if it were happening to us. Because the film cannot do this in quite the same way, the result is less effective.
The Blank Wall is a completely satisfying novel in terms of story, suspense, and character, conveying the idea that during the war, the home front could be just as deadly as the battlefield. After reading this book, I plan on exploring much more of Holding’s work.
The Blank Wall is part of the Library of America collection Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s, edited by Sarah Weinman. That volume also includes Laura by Vera Caspary, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, and The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis.
I highly recommend this volume, but you might as well get the box set which also includes four novels from the 1950s featuring works by Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, Dolores HItchens, and Charlotte Armstrong.
* The Blank Wall was also filmed in 2001 as The Deep End. The Reckless Moment is available on a region-free Blu-ray from Indicator.
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