|Elisabeth Sanxay Holding|
Holding's earlier Dodd, Mead crime novels were much praised, and The Obstinate Murderer was so as well. Saturday Review was struck by the "amazing deviltry and horror" that animated "the entire tale." The New York Times Book Review noted that, in addition to being a "mystery story," Obstinate was "a fascinating study of twisted mentalities."
The novel, which Holding dedicated to Frank E. Blackwell then editor-in-chief of Detective Story Magazine, is strikingly short by today's standards, barely, in fact, at some 42,000 words by my count, a novel. It's an interesting book for its time, though one that may be too economically sketched for many readers today. It's also a needed reminder that the psychological crime novel existed in the US in the 1930s, right along with the hard-boileds, the cocktails and quips mysteries, the zanies and the neo-Gothics.
In the novel Arthur Van Cleef, a leisured idler and semi-drunk in early middle-age, is sought out by Russell Blackman, an eighteen-year-old lad he had briefly befriended ten years earlier, when Blackman was just eight and Van Cleef thirty. Van Cleef had been friends with Blackman's Aunt Hilda, who died tragically young. Blackman fondly recalls his friendship with Van Cleef (something the latter man barely remembers):
"When they realized how ill [Aunt Hilda] was, they sent me off to board at the day school I went to. It was in the Easter holidays; nobody else there. It was the first time I'd been away from home, and it was hell. I didn't know what to do with myself. I felt--forgotten. And then you came, in your car. You brought me a steamer-basket full of cakes and chocolates, and fruit, with a big silver gauze bow on the handle....When my aunt died, you came again....You drove me home and you talked to me."
Blackman has grown up to be something of a universal genius, good at everything, but instinctively disliked by everyone. Now idle, with an allowance of $6600 month (in today's dollars) to sustain him financially but emotionally cut off from his family, Blackman has decided to look up Van Cleef, the one person who was once kind to him.
Today it's easy to discern in Holding's depiction in the novel of the relationship between Van Cleef and Blackman--whom Holding describes as "an extraordinarily handsome boy, slim, almost slight in build, with a dark narrow face, brilliant with life"--a homosexual subtext on Blackman's part. Later in the novel another exchange occurs between the two, about women:
"You're interested in women, aren't you?" said Russell.
"After all, such a lot of 'em around..." said Van Cleef. "It would be a bit hard, not to notice 'em."
"But you like them."
"And you don't?"
"Unrequited love-making make you bitter?"
"I'm not bad-looking. I'm not stupid. And I have money. I could have a pretty wide choice--if I wanted."
On the same day as his meeting with Russell, Van Cleef is called by his old friend Emilia Swan, whose husband, Bill, died suddenly a few years ago, to come visit her at her mansion in the small town of Blackhaven, which she now runs as a guest house. She's being blackmailed, she hysterically tells Van Cleef. Russell Blackman has a car, so off the pair goes to pay Mrs. Swan a call. Blackman tells Van Cleef, he'd "like to be a super-detective, one of the scientific kind," and he soon gets his chance, when one of the guests at Mrs. Swan's guest house is poisoned. More poisonings follow, along with deaths.
In some ways this novel resembles a book by Agatha Christie (at least as stereotyped), with a sort of American country house/ village setting, a genteel milieu, a closed circle of for the most part, rather flat suspects and a dialogue-heavy prose. At one point in the novel, Van Cleef, beset by a rash of misdoings in a mansion, even wonders whether "there are any of those private detectives? Like in a book...Quiet, gentlemanly young fellow....
But with Holding the emphasis is on not clues, but psychology. I enjoyed The Obstinate Murderer, though I would not rank it, I must admit, with the best Holdings. It's one time I felt that a Golden Age crime novel would have benefited from some greater fleshing-out of its ideas, characters and situations But check it out for yourself; it's available both in paperback and Kindle. In its blurb for the book, Dodd, Mead recommend it to "the mystery connoisseur...the reader who appreciates a detective novel with substance and background"--surely you're one of those people, since you read this blog!