The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

June 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Storylines are revealed in this review.

Lucia Holley’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Beatrice, has become involved with a disreputable older man, Ted Darby. Lucia does not want Beatrice to see him any more. But the ‘worldly-wise’ Beatrice, believing her mother to be wrong about Ted, will not listen to her.

Lucia has no one to advise her. She won’t trouble her husband, Tom, who is away at war. And neither does she confide in her father, Mr Harper, who lives with them. It seems that he would be unable to bear the knowledge of his granddaughter’s involvement with a louche type.

Lucia visits Ted, in his seedy hotel, and appeals unsuccessfully to him. Although Lucia forbids Beatrice to see Ted, Beatrice arranges for Ted to meet her at their boat house. It is night time when he arrives; Lucia manages to prevent Beatrice from going out to him. Mr Harper catches the tail end of their argument. He learns of a bothersome man, but not his name or his relation to his granddaughter. Mr Harper goes out to deal with him.

When Mr Harper returns, rather pleased with himself, he reports that he has pushed the man into the water. The water is no more than four feet, not deep enough for anyone to drown in.

Early next morning when Lucia goes out to swim, she discovers Darby’s body impaled on an anchor in the moored boat. To protect her family, Lucia brings the body to a nearby island.

But the matter does not end there. Mr Nagle, one of Ted Darby’s creditors, comes to the Holleys. As he has not heard from Ted since he arranged to meet Beatrice, he thinks they might have information about him. Lucia fobs him off but for how long?

Lucia tells her father that he pushed a German man into the water. Therefore some days later when Ted Darby’s body is discovered, Mr Harper has no idea that he killed Ted Darby.

The newspapers reveal that Ted Darby dabbled in pornography. Beatrice declares that she is ruined. Her association with Ted will destroy her. But as no one who counts is aware of Beatrice’s relationship with Ted, it can be covered up.

Irishman Martin Donnelly, Nagle’s partner, an altogether different kind of man to Nagle, calls on the Holleys, equipped with the letters Beatrice wrote to Ted. Beatrice’s letters are the security for the money Ted owes them. Neither he nor Nagle can afford to lose the money they lent Ted Darby. Lucia must pay 5,000 dollars to retrieve the letters.

While involving herself with criminals, Lucia continues her role as respectable housewife. She passes Martin Donnelly off as an old colleague of her husband’s. Beatrice is kept out of things. She is now making friends with a nice boy from the rich and respectable Lloyd family. It becomes all the more important for Beatrice to retain her reputation. It is assumed that if Mr Harper is charged with killing Darby, Beatrice’s entanglement with him will come out, and the Lloyds will drop her.

The investigating Lieutenant Levy, nice though he is, is not so nice as to overlook the incriminating evidence Lucia left behind her when she disposed of the body.

Lucia, however, is not alone. The resourceful Sylvia (the Holleys’ cook), who has been masking Lucia’s inefficiencies for years, is on her side, and so, oddly enough, is Martin Donnelly. But one wrong leads to another and it gets harder to turn back.

The Blank Wall is a special book. One of those books you feel affection for when you see it on your shelves and can only wish that enough time had passed since you read it last, so you could read it again.

However, The Blank Wall has one great flaw: the author appears to suggest through her characters that it is most acceptable for the rich man to be in his castle, and the beggar at his gate. You might read ‘respectable’ for ‘rich’ and ‘criminal’ for ‘beggar’.

He [Mr Harper] was getting old in such a clean, fine way, his silver hair cropped close, his nails so neatly clipped, his necktie pressed that morning, a brown and yellow check . . . (Chapter 8)

Not all of us will get old in such picturesque way, does that mean we are less entitled to freedom from harassment? Mr Harper has done a very dangerous thing; it could amount to manslaughter. He pushed a man, whose swimming abilities he knew nothing of, into the water and then did not check if he had come to any harm.

All Beatrice has done is involve herself, mildly, with a louche type whose loucheness she did not even spot. She wrote a few letters, which were more innocent than otherwise, to him. She let him kiss her but that was all. Is she indeed ruined? The story is set in 1940s not in 1870s. She has not lost her virginity. In what way is she ruined?

Are the Lloyds entitled to drop Beatrice when they discover where her naivety has led her? The Holleys do not seem to query their right to do so. Who are the Lloyds? From where have they derived their fortune? Who is the Lloyd boy to quibble about a few kisses? What has he been up to?

The Lloyds, like the Holleys, are nice people: it is enough. And all these nice people should be allowed to go on being nice, unimpeded by criminal associations. Does it matter what we do, so long as we appear respectable?

A man, Murray, is arrested on suspicion of the killing but Martin Donnelly advises Lucia to let him, if necessary, be electrocuted for it. Murray is guilty of enough else. Lucia feels that reticence in this matter would be a sin. But she has all the more to hide, and one wonders if she would have, or could have, come forward. At this point, Lucia has covered up a killing, disposed of a dead body and involved herself with blackmailers. Lucia hesitates. Fortunately for her, she is not put to the test: Murray is released.

They’re so very criminal. Why should people like Father and Bee [Beatrice] have to suffer, just to clear a man like that Murray? (Chapter 11)

Should Lucia covet so much, for her family, respectability? Why prize respectability when it is is so easily lost? If the Lloyds would be so quick to condemn Beatrice, are they worth bothering about?

Yet the characters’ feelings of entitlement (which appear to be shared by the author) are not what lingers in my mind. I  forget about them, and I almost forget about Beatrice and Mr Harper too, but I do not forget Lucia, Sylvia, or Martin Donnelly. These are three great characters: great because we remember them. They are realistic, their actions are not predictable but they are fitting. They linger in the memory after characters in greater books have faded.

Lucia married straight from school, and soon after had children. She has seen little of the world. Beatrice almost despises her for it. Yet it is Beatrice that is the more typical character. She’s had her rebellion and bitten off more than she could chew. Now we anticipate she will marry the Lloyd boy; she is certainly keen to keep in with the family. She has quickly lost her taste for the bohemian.

The tough talking daughter is not half the woman her mother is. Her mother has had a sheltered life but when it comes to this crisis, she proves tougher, and more resourceful than all the others, including the criminals.  Elizabeth Sanxay Holdings illustrates well the truth that some people with little experience of the world understand its workings far better than those with more experience.

Martin Donnelly is not a low criminal type. He falls in love with the thirty-eight-year old Lucia. She is the woman who comes nearest to his ideals. He is far from bad. He went wrong somewhere but he has more nobility than many a respectable person.

For Lucia’s sake, Donnelly does things he would never have done. But does Lucia care for him? What will her life be like when Tom, her husband, returns from the war? Tom doesn’t sound interesting. I imagine him to be a pleasant, dull man who does not know Lucia. But would anyone have known her as went about her motherly and wifely duties, duties which represented the life she was so keen to cling to, at almost any cost?

It is still a mystery to me how Lucia feels about Martin Donnelly. I hope that she loved him. It seems the least she could do.

The romance is of the best kind: thwarted, high-minded and unconsummated. Ah, if only . . .

“Can I see you once more?” he said. “When I’ve settled all this, would you have lunch with me, the way it was today?”

She did not answer.

“Just the once, when it’s all settled? he asked. “I know how it is with you. You have your family and your—social  position to think of. But if you’d give me just one more sight of you . . . ?”

There were people moving and hurrying all around them; a prodigious voice was announcing trains but they were somehow isolated. He did not urge her any more; he simply waited in a dreadful humility. The gate of her platform was opening, but she stood there with her lashes lowered. Suddenly she held out her white-gloved hand, and looked at him.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be very pleased to have lunch with you some day.”

(Chapter 15)

The Blank Wall deserves a place in the Crime Writers Association (CWA) top 100 crime novels (1990) and the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) top 100 (1995). It is not listed in either. The lists are found on the same page, the CWA one first, and the MWA one underneath.

The Blank Wall (1947) has been made into two films, The Reckless Moment (1949) and The Deep End (2001)

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