I have to admit that my first experience of Holding’s work was not a great one, having got thoroughly frustrated with The Obstinate Murderer (1938). I really wasn’t sure I would give her work another go. So when I was offered some of the reprints of her work by Stark House Press, suffice to say I didn’t know if I wanted to take them up on their offer. However, Greg Shepard was not daunted by this and strongly recommended I try today’s read first. In his own words he ‘would love to create a Holding convert if I can.’ So let’s see how he did?
I very much enjoyed reading the introduction to the Stark House reprint of The Death Wish (1934) and Net of Cobwebs, as Greg manages to convey smaller details alongside the bigger picture of Holding’s life and work. Holding did not start out writing mystery novels, only turning to them when the Depression hit. Between 1929 and 1952 she penned 18 titles. Her focus in these suspense novels was the whydunit:
‘It’s the “why” that is always the most important part of her books. The psychological underpinnings of her novels form the basis of the mystery. Her characters always act from a very determined point of view. Whether from guilt, discontent, deception, misconception, or even pure altruism, they act out their dramas with very little consideration for other points of view. And therein lies the conflict. They have all got blinders on, seeing just what they want to see, each with their own misguided agenda.’
Greg goes onto write that: ‘simply put, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is the precursor to the entire women’s psychological suspense genre, and authors like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell owe her a very large debt of gratitude.’ Having now read today’s title under review, I have to agree that I can see how Holding’s ability to structure her narrative focus/point of view from an unreliable character’s mindset, went on to influence the likes of Highsmith and Rendell. Those two definitely feel like literary descendants in that respect.
Before sharing my thoughts on the book, here’s what the story is about…
‘Malcolm Drake had been a merchant seaman, but has returned from the war a changed man, his nerves completely frayed. Now he lives at his brother Arthur’s house, with his sister-in-law Helene and her sister Virginia—and their domineering Aunt Evie. Aunt Evie only wants what is best for Malcolm, of course, but when she drops dead one evening at a party, the rumours quickly spread that he had something to do with it. Dr Lurie is sure that Malcolm had loaded her glass with alcohol, inducing a heart attack. The butler, Ben, even claims to have seen him do it. One of the guests, Aunt Evie’s young protégé, Ivan Jenette, has news to the contrary, but has conveniently disappeared. Their neighbour, Lily Kingscrown, believes in his innocence, but there is something decidedly strange going on at her house—her own maid goes into screaming fits for apparently no reason. And now the police have some questions of their own. Malcolm is enmeshed in a net of cobwebs, and the strands are growing tighter by the moment.’
So was this another reading disaster? Have I given up on Holding for good?
Well I’m sure Greg will be pleased to know the answer to both of these questions is a definite no! I’m raring to start my next Holding read!
A key reason why I think this story worked better was that it was not straddling two subgenres. The Obstinate Murderer is an awkward mix of detective and suspense fiction, and I did not feel it achieved the expectations of either camp. Net of Cobwebs on the other hand sticks firmly within the suspense style and is all the better for it, providing a nail biting read, as you wonder how Malcolm is ever going to extricate himself from the increasing trouble he gets into.
Malcolm is an interesting protagonist and seems to be suffering from some form of PTSD due to a traumatic incident on his last voyage. On the first page Malcolm is keen to emphasise to himself how everything is fine, yet from the get-go there is an undercurrent of nagging tension, which Holding builds up from an unmade bed. We also see how his memory is not the best and at the start of the book he is struggling to make plans and follow through on them. A dependency on sedatives also comes into the picture. Consequently, our point of view comes from a character who is not wholly reliable and who has a limited perspective on what is going on within his brother’s household. This is a viewpoint Holding uses very effectively, leaving the reader wondering how much they can trust the information they receive from him and the narrative did briefly bring Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt (1934) to mind.
Having a central character suffering from war-based trauma makes this an engaging book, not least because of the way it portrays the other characters who are trying to help him. Well I say that, but you do begin to wonder if everyone is really trying to do so… Aunt Evie, before she dies, takes the firm hand approach, trying to bulldoze Malcolm into doing things. Yet unsurprisingly this does not go down well with Malcolm, though neither does his sister in law’s method of mollycoddling him. It is also intriguing that a few of the characters seem to think Malcolm is ready to return to the seas, particularly in a boat, though weaponised, which is unlikely to come off well in an encounter with a U-boat. As much as you’re rooting for Malcolm, I don’t think he’s quite fit for active duty just yet…
It is equally not that surprising that Evie dies so quickly in the book as she tries to take charge of everyone’s lives:
‘She explained that she could not help people unless she knew things. And she found out everything. She had a sleepless, unwearying curiosity, and great skill in putting two and two together. She believed in candor, too; what she found out she told.’
This description grabbed my attention as it seemed like the other side of the coin to the curiosity and information gathering of Miss Marple, which readers invariably view favourably. This portrayal of similar behaviours presents them in a different light.
A key motif of this book is foreshadowed in the title: cobwebs, and Malcolm himself brings up the image:
‘Cobwebs are pretty. I’ve looked at them. I saw a bee caught in a cobweb once. It was getting dragged along, by the littlest spider in the world. Dragged into the web. The bee could break one thread, and another thread. But in the end there were just too damn many threads. Each one of them is so little, you think, well, I’ll bust out of this. But then there’s another. And another… The bee looked enormous, furry, like an animal. I thought I’d do something about it. But then something happened; I don’t remember what. When I came back, the bee was dead, finished. By the little tiny spider. No. It doesn’t have to be like that. You don’t have to be a damned, stupid, furry bee. You can be a fine, bold bee.’ [Yes, I did include the last two sentences because they amused me.]
Motifs like this one can sometimes become a token gesture in order to justify a catchy title, yet in this book I felt the cobweb motif worked well and is embodied in the structure of the plot which increasingly mirrors the descent of the bee through what happens to Malcolm. There is very little open hostility towards him, despite the rumours going around, yet the most dangerous people around him, the ones most likely to get him into trouble, are the ones who are seemingly trying to be nice and helpful. The idea of a conspiracy soon enters the mind of the reader but until the ending you cannot tell if it is one of design or accident. I think Holding conceals this aspect effectively. What adds to this tense situation is that Malcolm is not mentally in a position to make the smart decisions. He invariably ends up saying the wrong thing or doing something less than wise. Naturally I was racing through the story to find out what would happen next and to figure out what is really going on. When the truth finally emerges, with pages to spare, I found it genuinely surprising, yet it completely fitted what had come before it and I thought it appropriate that Holding concluded the text on an unsettling note, leaving you to wonder what happened to the characters next and how they moved on.
All in all this book was definitely a success for me, so stay tuned for my next review on The Death Wish.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)