The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Having very much enjoyed my last read by Holding I decided to jump straight into another one. Greg Shephard in the introduction to the Stark House Press reprint notes that: ‘Holding […] loved to examine the way stress works on characters, particularly middle-aged men, and would combine this with her theme of domestic disharmony.’ This idea is fundamental to the plot of The Death Wish and I find the story, as a whole, to be a captivating and vivid psychological suspense novel. Commenting on my previous Holding review, fellow blogger, Laurie of Bedford Bookshelf, said she found her first experience of Holding’s work an ‘intense,’ one and I feel that is a very apt adjective for today’s read.

Synopsis:

‘Poor Mr. Delancey. His wife Josephine belittles him, controlling his purse strings and managing his life. It’s understandable that he might grow a bit resentful. His best friend, Robert Whitestone, is a frustrated artist. Whitestone hates his wife, and is in love with a young girl named Elsie who has come to stay with their neighbours, the Luffs. But Whitestone has a plan to free himself, and naturally Delancey is pulled into the middle of it, willingly or not. And when Mrs. Whitestone is found drowned, what can poor Delancey do? He has to help his friend, no matter what the consequences. If only his wife weren’t so hateful about the whole thing, so unreasonable. It’s only when young Hugh Acheson comes to visit and begins an investigation of his own that things become really complicated. Poor Mr. Delancey—what’s a man to do? It’s enough to drive a person to murder.’

Overall Thoughts

As the synopsis suggests, Shawe Delancey’s marriage is somewhat dysfunctional. Yet I think the way Holding reveals this to the reader shows a great deal of nuance. Here is the opening passage of the story:

‘Delancey lit a cigarette, and leaning back in his chair, gazed across the breakfast table toward the window through which he could see the garden in the green freshness of early Summer. He had eaten with excellent appetite, he had slept soundly all night, he felt comfortable and cheerful; he enjoyed the sight of the clear blue sky; he liked to watch the neat, rosy little housemaid moving deftly about the table. And, as long as possible, he meant to avoid looking at his wife across the table from him. He was very well aware that there were tears in her eyes, which she wanted him to see; he knew that if he spoke to her, she would answer in a grieved, reproachful voice. Presently, of course, he would be obliged to notice her…. He sighed inaudibly. He liked to laugh, to be easy and careless and good-humoured, and Josephine most effectively prevented that. She made his home life a continual uneasiness, with her affectations, her moods, her sudden changes from clinging affection to hostility. Yet he felt no bitterness toward her, no resentment.’

Within this short section Holding provides the reader with a myriad of subtle, though not necessarily unbiased, details and helps us understand the dynamic between the two of them, which is only going to get more important as the plot unfolds.

I found it fascinating how the death of Mrs Whitestone and the arrest of her husband for her demise has such a devastating effect on Delancey’s marriage. It quite literally disintegrates, not least because of the dangers of misheard conversations. There is no one big argument, but instead there are lots of little flare ups, which initially are smoothed down by Delancey’s lack of sustained resistance. Yet this becomes less doable when Robert Whitestone’s arrest strips Delancey of all his delusions which preserve his relative contentment in life:

‘He had a wonderful capacity for deluding himself, but he could not do that now. He had seen his own unhappy, naked soul. He had fought and had been entirely defeated. He had done his best, and his best was contemptible.’

Sympathy is an interesting component in this book. There are characters which are naturally unlikeable such as Josephine and there are characters who garner sympathy from others in the story, despite their reprehensible or their suspected reprehensible behaviour. Elsie in particular has an unconventional moral compass when it comes to murder. Yet because the reader has a fuller picture, especially of characters like Delancey, our feelings towards him and others are more complex. Delancey is a hen-pecked husband, but he is one of his own choosing, knowing what he was getting into when he effectively married his wife for her money.

Hugh Acheson plays a very prominent and pivotal role in the book and is a very intriguing character. He is the closest thing we have to a detective, being the only who wants to find out the truth and have legal justice. At the start of the book he does not approve of the rude cocktail gulping Elsie. I don’t blame him given all the havoc she causes as she tries to do what she thinks is best for Robert Whitestone; (an agenda which actually just makes everything worse and damages several other people’s lives.) She is truly selfish, and her behaviour arguably contributes to the death of more than one person, (putting me in mind of The Great Gatsby), yet worryingly we find Hugh not coming under her spell, accepting her skewed and warped idea of kindness, but still nevertheless falling her. (No one believes his professed lack of love for her…) This attraction is probably the most unfathomable mystery of the book!

Aside from this blind spot Hugh still provides a helpful outside point of view on the developing situation and from early on he comes across as a Miss Marple in young male form, especially with his level of detachment. Although I would say he lacks imagination and whilst he is able to pick up and decipher some of the bigger undercurrents, he does miss some of the finer ones. Passages in the book such as this one, strengthened the parallel between the two characters:

‘As a naturalist, when finding a new specimen, compares and contrasts it with species already known to him, so did Hugh, when meeting a person for the first time, attempt to relate that person with someone already known to him. He did this unconsciously, because it was his fixed habit to draw only upon his own experience.’

Looking back on this book I feel it has a lot in common with the writing style of Jean Potts. Both writers did wonderful things with the ‘If only…’ trope, in which big consequences occur in a falling dominoes fashion. This story is also one where you think you see the ending coming but Holding pulls the rug out from under your feet. This is the moment upon which the book should have ended on and it uses the title in a brilliant fashion. Unfortunately, there is a short chapter after this one which delivers a final anti-climactic note.

However, this does not put me off reading more by Holding and I look forward to finding my next read from her.

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)

5 comments

  1. A Miss Marple in a young male form who falls for the villanous woman? 🤔

    Thanks for the review… It seems like the Stark House reprints have picked good titles – just perhaps not the puzzle-oriented sort of mystery?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think with titles such as this, the mystification is more to do with what direction is the plot going to go in? How are things going to end? There are things to figure out but they are presented as an overt puzzle to solve.

      Like

  2. Intense is a good word for this one. The mystery comes less from trying to figure out what has happened in terms of crime than in trying to solve the mystery of the characters. I loved the complexity of these people–no one is all good, no one is all bad. Even the relationships that seem the most dysfunctional still have real love behind them. That is what makes things so difficult, and it sets up the ending perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

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