Hi Kate, which novel are we talking about?
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall.
What’s the synopsis in 30 words or less?
In the midst of WWII a woman finds herself in trouble: her husband’s somewhere in the south Pacific and her daughter is being blackmailed by a thug. When the thug turns up dead, things get worse: he’s got a partner and the price has gone up.
Raymond Chandler rated Elisabeth Sanxay Holding as a great suspense novelist. How has her star been hidden under a bushel all these years? Or has it?
Because dudes are afraid to be seen admiring women; well, quality men like Chandler aren’t afraid, but a lot of mealy-mouthed pathetic excuses are. It’s a sad thing, but you can see it now, too. A big part of it is friends promoting friends, but most men are not friends with women — and they lose out because of it. They don’t see women as people. Unless a woman is someone they want to make time with, infinitely cooler or much more famous, they just don’t recommend them, review them, invite them to events. When people like Sanxay Holding and Hughes were more famous, they got the props — but they don’t have the ‘cool’ factor like the hard-drinking, dying-young dudes to keep them famous. These women led happy and productive lives — the horror! Middle-aged women are invisible in our culture. I wrote a story about a hit woman whose success rested in that fact (“The Bride with White Hair”).
Agatha Christie has remained a staple over the decades, though in a genre considered cosy. Is it that noir is considered unladylike and therefore a male domain?
Oh completely! Look at the sneering cosies get (I never know how to spell cozies/cosies? They both look wrong. I have the same problem writing on the board in class). It’s not far off the contempt for romance novels — you know, the biggest selling genre on the planet. There’s a bit of angry competitiveness mixed in with a posturing of cool. You can look around and see it: the guys who put so much effort in to trying to be cool. Real cool requires no effort. I guess maybe some of it comes from the ‘write what you know’ edicts, Iowa school stuff (they were CIA funded, did you know?). You don’t have to be a sleazy low-life junkie jazz musician thief etc to write noir. It’s a kind of backhanded romanticism about writing. I teach a course on films about writers. Hollywood hates writers, people who seem to conjure stories out of nothing. They don’t trust anything you can’t buy and have. So the films always hinge on suffering for the art and recycling your real life as fiction. Hollywood doesn’t believe in imagination. But a real film about a real writer would be like a Warhol movie and nobody would buy it. Like the man said, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
And yet The Blank Wall was made a film in 1949 as The Reckless Moment, and remade in 2001 as The Deep End. Have the movies been divorced from their originator?
As it happens, I have recently given two conference presentations on the films. Oddly enough, Ophüls’ film The Reckless Moment continues to be unavailable apart from its appearance on YouTube. It doesn’t really capture the tension of the novel, though the stars are great (James Mason and Joan Bennett). The subtlety of Lucia’s anxiety, that constant inner monologue, is difficult to bring to the screen. It does give Francis E. Williams an historic moment; she’s the first African American woman to drive a car onscreen apparently. Williams would later spend more of her time as an activist both for actors and more broadly, founding the first black theatre group in Los Angeles. But the importance of the relationship between Lucia and Sybil gets lost.
Lucia is only able to maintain her façade of normalcy with the help of Sybil. Her maid really manages the house and helps the housewife look good to her family and sort of normal, which she struggles with. Lucia’s trust in Sybil gives her strength to keep on as things fall apart and the criminal world pervades her own. So it comes as a shock to her when she learns the truth about Sybil’s life and her grief and loss — these days we recognise that as Lucia finally understanding the scope of her own privilege. It rocks her. What she’s been patting herself on the back for surviving suddenly seems like nothing.
The Deep End completely whitewashes the story. There is no Sybil. I love Tilda Swinton but the story is just about a plucky woman who deals with problems. It’s even less noir, which is a real missed opportunity. The story has been moved to Reno, which has a lot more noir potential, not to mention a large Latino population. It would have been interesting to give Sybil a different approach that fit the situation.
How did the era in which the novel was published react to Sybil’s agency?
I don’t know that there was much commentary at all. I haven’t found a contemporary review that does, but I have to do more digging. It’s interesting that Ophüls credits the original, shorter version that was serialised in the Ladies Home Journal. Maybe that’s the only version he read, but at least one scholar has suggested that he did so to give a stamp of untroubled wholesomeness, the ‘woman’s film’ genre was usually thought to be ‘safe’ and Ophüls was often categorised as a woman’s film maker — until of course his genius was recognised by later filmmakers and he was restored to being a filmmaker (-_-).
The inciting incident has the man dating the protagonist’s daughter turn up dead – from there Lucia’s world is plunged deeper into turmoil. Jake Hinkson has noted that noir is about weakness and hardboiled about strength. Where does Lucia stand?
I’m not one to believe in hard and fast rules; never met a rule I didn’t want to test anyway. Lucia is very weak; for the first time in her life she realises how weak she is — and yet she pushes herself to do things that terrify her. Mostly on behalf of her family, but there’s a part of herself she discovers that has a little flint to it. She’s relied on Sybil’s strength so long — and after Donnelly, the other blackmailer, starts to fall for her we see the weakness in him. There’s a throwaway line about his almost joining a monastery that drops a huge clue about what’s going on in his head, though she’s mostly blind to it. But when he’s in a tough situation, Lucia flies in the face of everything she told herself was right to try to save him. She feels a giddy freedom that she’s never had. But there’s no happy ending: this is noir.
Is the book an exploration of a woman’s place in the world in that period, especially a woman of her class? Her husband is at war, she’s left alone with her children and Sybil, and she must cope with the disasters piling on her. What’s a poor woman to do without her man?
I’d certainly never define it that way. It is about the war and those left behind, but it’s more about what happens when your safe world collides with the criminal. Her husband’s last act before deserting her to go to war was moving them out of NYC to be ‘safe’. Her life does include the endless numbing tasks women are left to do, coping with wartime deprivations, yet still expected to ‘keep the home fires burning’ the same as always. Lucia’s whole family treats her with contempt. Her father thinks of himself as ‘man of the house’ yet does nothing for anyone—and unknowingly commits a grave crime. Her daughter’s stupid rebellion puts them all in danger. Her barely teenage son harangues her for any deviation from what he perceives as ‘normal’ — even going out for a swim on her own. The police condescend to her and the criminals do, too. Lucia surprises herself as much as anyone when she discovers her anger after doing everything she can to take care of her family.
What is it about noir that grabs you?
Desperation: people on the edge, where their desires push them past all logic and reason, make for fascinating stories. I think of noir as filled with people who don’t feel they have many options and inevitably choose the wrong ones. Even if they survive you feel as if their world has been scarred or poisoned irretrievably. There’s a rawness and simplicity when your world gets reduced to the essentials—or at least what you think is essential. We humans have a great capacity for self-destruction. A lot of noir captures that fall in slow motion, like a fly stuck in amber. You can almost hear it saying, ‘where did it all go wrong?’
What’s the push and pull for Lucia? She wants to protect her family, but as you’ve said – they make it hard for her. Are there moments she wishes she could be alone? Or is blood so thick her instincts demand she works to protect them?
I think at first it’s about holding onto normalcy. With all the upheaval that the war brings there’s almost a kind of superstitious attempt to hold fear at bay. If she doesn’t tell her husband the truth about how much they’re struggling, everything will be fine. If she just gets this guy to leave her daughter Bea alone, everything will be fine. If she just hides this body—
But at a certain point Lucia begins to allow things to unravel in an almost reckless way: fatigue really. When you’ve done every possible thing to fix what’s wrong and it’s not even close to enough to save everyone, maybe it’s time to let go, or do the impossible, or trust people you don’t think you can trust.
Lucia’s the kind of person who had never struggled for anything, fought for anything and she discovers there’s an exhilaration in daring, doing and not caring. She’s surrounded by people who care very deeply about shallow things. Lucia never wanted to be like them, but she always thought it was the right thing to do to pretend that she did. By the end of the story, the life around her is unchanged—or appears unchanged. But she’s someone completely different.
Who’s the antagonist, and what do they bring to the story?
The original antagonist is Ted Darby, he’s a sleazy crime figure who uses the art world to make connections. Lucia’s daughter Bee is taken in by his façade—mad, bad and dangerous to know, as it were. All the things that she knows she’s not. Clearly he’s trying to put the moves on her but she’s not easy to persuade, though her frank letters to him betray the intensity of Bee’s naïve desires. Lucia assumes she can just meet with him, tell him he’s doing something wrong and he will stop. Instead, he’s amused by this angry mother. Darby’s got a good knowledge of psychology — crime requires an ability to read people well or you get caught real fast. He knows that when Lucia tells her daughter, Bee will be embarrassed by being treated like a kid (she’s 17) and cling to him even more. And he knows that Lucia is almost as afraid of public scorn as she is of her daughter taking up with an ‘unsuitable’ man. Lucia has a kind of child-like faith in the various systems of polite society. Ted Darby throws her into the deep end of some very choppy waters. It’s the first crack in her shell of safety.
If they made it a movie again, and you’re in charge of casting, who plays who?
Oh, I’m terrible at these. I think I’d move it to a small British village on the sea coast during the war, for a more immediate sense of danger. Helen McCrory who is so fantastic would bring a great twitchy sort of slow burn to Lucia, especially when she breaks. Maybe Paul Anderson as the sleazy Ted Darby since he’s well practised in criminal life. And it might be a little too on the nose, but Colin Farrell as Donnelly because he’s good at trying to be a bastard and failing because he’s got that ‘almost a priest’ hole in his heart. Sophie Okonedo would be great as Sybil because she was so fierce as Margaret of Anjou in the Hollow Crown. She would be the strength at the heart of the story.
You write noir as Graham Wynd. Has Elisabeth Sanxay Holding influenced your writing at all?
Probably: it’s hard to see influence in your writing. Everything I’ve ever read influences me. I can’t always see it but I know I have read and re-read Sanxay Holding, Hughes and Highsmith a lot since I started writing noir. Hammett, too, but these three really have been on my mind. They were at the core of my crime fiction class I just finished teaching. And I keep writing about them, which is a way of assimilating their magic. I never became an English major because I was afraid that diving deeply into books I loved would somehow make that magic disappear. Oddly enough, it just strengthens it.
Do your students absorb the magic the way you have? Any dissenters?
Oh, I doubt it. Students in those courses are usually non-majors taking what they hope will be their last English course. I have to say that a surprising number of them actually kept up with the reading and enthusiastically argued plot points and their significance. They accept a little too much on face value, which makes it hard for them to get to grips with Highsmith especially, Millar too. I didn’t know how much they would sympathise with a character who is about their mother’s age but they seemed to have a connection with Lucia because of how bad her family is. They understand getting picked on. They questioned Donnelley’s motivations, though. Despite being at what used to be a Catholic college they didn’t buy the idea of sacrifice, which amused me.
Is sacrifice the main theme? Is The Blank Wall What you could call family-noir?
No, I hate all these sub-genre splittings. Noir is noir. Sacrifice might be a theme but Lucia learns that it gets you nowhere. But by the end of the novel everything has changed, but no one realises it except her and Sybil. The family were deluded before and happy to be deluded again. Most people are happy with their illusions — their pipe dreams. What I like about the end is the feeling that Lucia might just walk out the door one day and never return.
If I’m going to do an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding deep dive, which of her books should I read after The Blank Wall – and why?
A lot of her books are hard to get hold of: The Innocent Mrs Duff is packaged with The Blank Wall in some editions, and it’s a good one though quite different. A guy who thinks he wants to get rid of his wife and take up with his kid’s nanny embroils himself into increasingly dangerous shenanigans — more Highsmith-like than her other books. Net of Cobwebs is a really fascinating book because the main character can’t trust his own point of view while accused of a string of murders. In the Stark House edition, it’s doubled with The Death Wish, where another guy starts thinking about killing his wife after his friend confides he has a plan to kill his. Lady Killer is intriguing because it takes place on a cruise. A wife begins to have doubts about her husband’s behaviour and then gets caught up in the life of another woman who might be in danger and it all ends up being much more complicated than she’s even imagined. Miasma, paired with it in the Stark House edition (thank goodness they put these out because even out of print, they’re the easiest versions to find) is about a doctor who’s failing so he takes a position in a private ‘clinic’ with a shady doctor and things turn out to be a lot weirder than expected — not to mention deadly.
Or any: like Hughes’s early novels, I’ve heard a lot of people say the earlier books are not worth reading which is a load of rubbish. Holding is always quality with great characters and wonderful, vivid dialogue even when the plot isn’t as finely tuned as her best stories are.
How is Your Love is a Grift coming along? Have you finished the edits?
Ha! One more academic thing to get done (June 1 deadline!) and then I can make a final run-through. But there’s also the song to record which won’t happen until August at least, so I suspect this won’t be out before fall. Reminds me, I should ask my publisher what her plans are!
Kate, your answers have been fabulous. I’m off to add The Blank Wall to my reading list.
What you up to?
Right now I’m wrestling with celticism in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and teaching a short online course. After June 1st I am back to inveterate idling which means writing mad stuff without any rules. Academic writing requires discipline, so it’s good to be able to throw rules away for a while. This has been an intense and not particularly pleasant year, so I am glad to be back in Scotland and *almost* relaxing. Soon, soon. Enjoy The Blank Wall — it’s a fabulous book. Thanks for all the probing questions. I have an idea to write a book on Holding and Hughes and maybe Highsmith, so this has all been useful for me to think.
Further reading on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding:
Lisa Scottoline on The Blank Wall at Women Crime Writers
Here’s a couple of Graham Wynd short stories to get a taster:
The Oven at Spelk Fiction
Bloody Collage at Pulp Metal Magazine
You can find everything to do with Kate Laity at her website, kalaity.com.