Holding, Elisabeth Sanxay

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HOLDING, Elisabeth Sanxay

Born 8 June 1889, Brooklyn, New York; died 7 February 1955, Bronx, New York

Daughter of Charles S. and Edith Hollick Sanxay; married George E. Holding, 1913 (died 1943); children: one daughter, one son

After her marriage, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding lived in South America, the West Indies, and Bermuda, settings used in her fiction. Known primarily as a mystery writer, Holding also wrote romantic social criticism and short stories, two of which were filmed as The Price of Pleasure (1925) and The Bride Comes Home (1936).

In both her first and last novels, Holding examines motherhood as a limiting factor in a woman's life. Invincible Minnie (1920) is the story of Minnie and Frances Defoe, young orphans reared in a tradition of genteel poverty that forms Minnie's destructive personality. Her determination to marry and her corrupt concept of motherhood excuse any untruth, even bigamy. Tillie MacDonald in Widow's Mite (1953) hides facts in a murder case, using the welfare of her fatherless son as an excuse. Discussions contrasting detective fiction with the novel's "reality" lend effective irony.

Two nonmysteries denounce social attitudes rendering women useless and unproductive. Rosaleen Monahan and Nicholas Landry in Rosaleen Among the Artists (1921) avoid marriage because of class differences only to learn, years later, that love rooted firmly in sexual desire is a stronger force than social standards. The brisk portraits of Dorothy Mell and Enid Bainbridge, successful, self-supporting painters, and sound discussions of the genesis of real art subdue the plot's sentimentality. The Unlit Lamp (1922) recounts the story of Claudine Mason Vincelle's upwardly mobile marriage, which transforms her from a clever, independent girl into a dependent, ineffectual woman. Slowly paced, the novels are nevertheless successful because of sound characterizations.

Holding's mystery novels are suspenseful personality studies rather than detective stories, and they often incorporate gothic elements. Dark Power (1930) is wholly gothic: the story of penniless Diana Leonard, isolated in a dreary country house, at the mercy of dangerous relatives. Traditionally, Diana is courted by two young men, and justice triumphs. In Miasma (1929), however, Holding inverts the subgenre, for the isolated innocent is a young physician, Alexander Dennison, who is attractive to two very different girls.

A repeated and effective Holding motif is the self-examination and reevaluation to which middle-aged women are forced when violence erupts into the domestic scene. The Old Battle-Ax (1943) depicts widowed Charlotte Herriott, who must sort out both damaging and enhancing self-concepts and separate false friends from true, all in the midst of a murder investigation. Lucia Holley of The Blank Wall (1947; filmed as The Reckless Moment) perceives herself only as wife and mother until she must try to conceal a murder and cope with unsought love. Lucia does not forsake her traditional attitudes, but she does alter them. Vividly rendered difficulties caused by the generation gap contribute to the success of both portraits.

Some of Holding's strongest novels explore damaged personalities and make splendid use of extended interior monologues. Net of Cobwebs (1945, reprinted in London 1952) tells of Malcolm Drake's faltering return to mental health after the sinking of his merchant ship and his subsequent collapse. In contrast, Montfort Duchesne of The Virgin Huntress (1951) fights a losing battle against guilt and cowardice. The tension in both books arises primarily from the characterization of the protagonists.

Another basic Holding plot device sets murder against the background of a failing marriage, focusing on protagonists who have married unwisely but try to keep their bargains. Honey Stapleton in Lady Killer (1942) has married disagreeable Weaver Stapleton for security and has lost almost all will of her own until she sets out to prevent a murder. Hack writer James Brophy in Too Many Bottles (1951, reprinted London 1952, retitled The Party Was the Pay-Off in 1953) has also traded independence for security, only to find himself accused of the murder of his unsuitable wife. Both Honey and James are realistic, tough-minded characters whose self-evaluation and personal growth provide subplots. Too Many Bottles ' analysis of the writing process is fascinating.

An early practitioner of the psychological mystery, Holding is considered a solid craftsperson particularly good at characterization and sustained suspense. She is noted for her treatment of a continuing character, police-lieutenant Levy, generally not the protagonist but rather a symbol of sanity, order, and justice.

Other Works:

Angelica (1921). The Shoals of Honour (1926). The Silk Purse (1928). The Death Wish (1934). The Unfinished Crime (1935). The Strange Crime in Bermuda (1937). The Obstinate Murderer (1938, in Britain as No Harm Intended, 1939). The Girl Who Had to Die (1940). Who's Afraid? (1940, alternate title Trial by Murder). Speak of the Devil (1941, alternate title Hostess to Murder, 1943). Kill Joy (1942, retitled Murder is a Kill-Joy, 1946). The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946). Miss Kelly (1947).


Reference works:

Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

Ladies' Home Journal (Sept. 1925). Mystery Fancier (Sept. 1977). NYTBR (3 May 1942, 3 June 1951).