In 1916 the White Enamel Refrigerator Company published, doubtlessly with an eye toward promoting sales to servantless ladies of its fabulous labor-saving devices, a book prosaically entitled Housewives Favorite Recipes for Cold Dishes, Dainties, Chilled Drinks, etc. “Most of the hardships of kitchen work come from the fact that it deprives many housewives of the pleasure of entertaining,” the editors of the gastronomic tome warned forebodingly. “The thought of going into a hot kitchen, after an evening at the theatre, to prepare a luncheon destroys all the anticipated pleasure of such an event.” Happily, however, with Housewives Favorite Recipes in her culinary arsenal any woman materially blessed with one of these enameled white wonders could “easily prepare in advance a tempting repast and place it in her refrigerator knowing it will be in perfect condition, whenever she is prepared to serve it.” Among the housewives who contributed to this reassuring collection of recipes was a bride of just three years standing, a Mrs. George Edwyn Holding of 39 West Washington Square, Greenwich Village, who offered up for beleaguered wifely readers a concoction of veal and ham artfully suspended in that savory jelly known as aspic, along with a scrumptious desert called chocolate parfait surprise. In fact twenty-seven-year-old Mrs. George Edwyn Holding was none other than future crime writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955).
Perhaps appropriately, given Mrs. Holding’s later occupation as a spinner of dark tales of murder and other assorted mayhem, the five-story, thirty-room brownstone apartment house at 39 West Washington Square, had seen, forty-four years earlier when it was run as a boarding house, a horrid case of attempted self-murder, one deemed sufficiently shocking to merit reporting in newspapers around the country in August 1872. On the 24th of that month, thirty-eight year old Thomas H. Dungee, a native English lace importer, while sitting at luncheon in the dining room abruptly attempted to thrust a large needle into his throat, but was stopped and taken up to his rooms on the second floor, where a physician was summoned to administer to the deranged man pacifying medication. During the afternoon, however, Dungee escaped into the street, clad only in his shirt and drawers, and dashed into a nearby drugstore, where he seized a bottle marked “poison” and attempted to quaff its contents. He was stymied in this suicide attempt by the quick-thinking druggist, who knocked the fatal bottle from his lips. Dungee was returned home and administered to yet again, but in the early evening he was spied running down the stairs with blood streaming out of a knife wound in his left breast. He dashed into the kitchen, grabbed a carving knife and again stabbed himself in the breast before being disarmed by the boarding house’s male “colored cook.” He was taken (one must say belatedly) to Bellevue Hospital, where he soon evaded attendants and leaped forty feet to his death from a third story window. Delirium tremens was said to have been the cause of Dungee’s dreadful suicidal mania.
One of the pair of respectable middle-aged widowed sisters who ran the boarding house at 39 West Washington Square, Emma Caroline Crosby Howes, lent her name in the late Seventies and Eighties to print advertising for a patent nostrum whimsically known as Wei De Meyer’s Catarrh Cure, earnestly assuring her fellow sufferers: “two packages cured me.” In fact this quack “cure” when analyzed was found to consist “almost entirely of bicarbonate of soda, costing less than one-tenth of one cent for the contents of a box, which retails for $1.50.” Another respectable boarder at 39 West Washington Square, a Mrs. Annie Pount, was arrested in 1897 for renting property she owned to “disorderly persons”—a euphemism for prostitutes. Behind closed doors in the publicly prim and proper Victorian/Edwardian era in which Elisabeth Sanxay Holding grew into womanhood, there all too often lingered, like some chronic, cureless catarrh, an oppressive miasma of moral and mental disorder, to recall the word the author herself would tellingly employ as the title of her first published crime novel in 1929. Holding was well aware of this miasma in her own family life and its darkling pall pervades her crime fiction.
In 1918, two years after the publication of Housewives Favorite Recipes and not long after the birth of her first child, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding turned from concocting tasty aspics and parfaits to writing fiction which dared to divulge unsavory truths about her society—and from there she never looked back. Twenty-five novels from Holding’s hand appeared between 1920 and 1953, eighteen of which, beginning with Miasma in 1929, concern criminal wrongdoing in one form or another. Additionally, however, the author published scores of short fiction tales—many of them admittedly anodyne romances—in a myriad of periodicals including The Smart Set, Munsey’s Magazine, The Century, The Dial, Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies’ Home Journal, The American Magazine, Liberty, Maclean’s, McClure’s, Munsey’s, Collier’s Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Mystery, Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine and, latterly in her career, the digests Mystery Book Magazine, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Saint Detective Magazine, Nero Wolfe Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the pinnacle of mid-century short crime writing.
By 1933 Holding estimated that she had already published “250 or so magazine stories,” this made possible through the maintenance of a strict regimen under which she wrote from 8:30 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening, entirely in longhand. My count of the actual known total of Holding’s magazine and newspaper publications suggests that the author either was exaggerating or that much of her writing remains unknown, for there are “only” 119 works between 1920 and 1933 (about half what Holding had estimated) and 85 between 1934 and 1954, along with five posthumously published stories between 1955 and 1958, making a total of 209 works, of which at least a half-dozen, possibly up to ten, are serializations of separately published novels. In her peak year of 1923, Holding published no fewer than twenty-six pieces of short fiction. Whatever the final tally of Holding’s total fictional output, however, what we currently know of this steady stream of highly disciplined composition is more than enough to place the author among the twentieth century’s most prolific purveyors of popular fiction.
Whatever had inspired Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a seemingly comfortably circumstanced and complacent young New York matron with not only a refrigerator but a husband and two little daughters to care for, to turn on such a gushing spigot of words? Certainly writing was an activity which Holding genuinely enjoyed, having precociously composed her first short story at the age of seven, penned a poem about her cat at the age of twelve, and first submitted a tale for publication at the age of sixteen. It was rejected, the first of many such shunnings. “For many years [I] wrote with a notable lack of success or encouragement,” the author later recalled. Additionally Holding told of having seen, at the age of twenty-nine, a magazine advertisement quoting steel magnate Charles Schwab dogmatically pronouncing that a man who has not accomplished anything worthwhile by the age of thirty would never do so. Impressed with this declaration, which she daringly assumed could apply to women as well as men, she determined to write a novel before her thirtieth birthday. This novel, Invincible Minnie, a cynical tale of a “mental and moral slattern” who routs all males before her in her irresistible “womanly woman” fashion, made it into print in 1920, shortly before Holding’s thirty-first birthday; and it received terrific, if sometimes shocked, reviews. Yet the heavy spate of writing which Holding commenced in the 1920s was motivated by something other than her own artistic ambition. Providing crucial impetus was the author’s consuming fear of loss of social caste and, worse yet, becoming overwhelmed by sheer economic deprivation, like a ship cruelly tossed in a terrible tempest.
Elisabeth’s tall, slender, black-haired, gray-eyed husband, George Edwyn Holding, who was thirty-seven years old years old when in 1913 he wed his twenty-three-year-old bride, at first blush would seem to have been a promising provider, but within his family there was, it appears, not only dazzling mental effervescence but a Stygian instability. A native of Greenwich, England, George–the son of steam forge manufacturer Joseph Holding and Sophia Charlotte Quin, a Yorkshire cousin in some degree—resided during the last quarter of the nineteenth century with his parents, three brothers and sister at “Gothic House” in the posh neighborhood of Maze Hill. Having as a young man been employed as a stockbroker’s clerk in London, George after the death in 1898 of his father, who seems not to have left the sizeable estate one might have anticipated, migrated to Christiansted, Danish West Indies, where his mother’s educationalist brother John Thomas Quin served as Inspector of Schools. (Sophia herself had been born on the island of Antigua in the Lesser Antilles, where her father was then in the bureaucratic service.) At Christiansted George took a job teaching languages. In 1909, after having spent about a decade in the Caribbean, George moved to New York, boarding in Brooklyn at the home of his brother Joseph and his wife (see below). He was still employed as a language teacher, but by the time of his marriage to Elisabeth four years later, he held a position in a New York office as an adjuster of maritime insurance.
Two of George’s brothers, Thomas and the aforementioned Joseph, were similarly afflicted with wanderlust and migrated to the United States after the death of their father. (The other brother, Leonard, remained in England, where he was employed, like George had been, as a stockbroker’s clerk.) Thomas Holding was an esteemed transatlantic stage and film actor with a fine Byronic profile who at the age of fifty expired suddenly in 1929 from a heart attack in his dressing room at the Longacre Theater on Broadway, where he had been performing the part of Colonel Geraldine in the play Mystery Square, adapted from a couple of short works by Robert Louis Stevenson. The previous year, in what turned out to be his final film role, the actor had appeared in The Terrible People, a ten-chapter serial adaptation of the Edgar Wallace thriller—though he is probably best known for playing George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham in Douglas Fairbanks’ classic swashbuckler The Three Musketeers (1921). At his death Thomas—who on the boards in the States between 1912 and 1914 had played the title role in Ben-Hur to great acclaim and been pronounced “one of the handsomest men on the London stage today,” endowed with a “superb physique” and “fire, ardor and innate manliness”—had separated from his actress wife, Muriel Godfrey-Turner. This imposing woman had led a remarkable life of amatory indulgence while evading, rather like Holding’s “Invincible Minnie,” the dreadful consequences so often meted out to such ladies in fictional melodrama.
Born Charlotte Muriel Tremlett in Kensington, Muriel was one of six children of a bricklayer and his wife, only two of whom survived babyhood. At the ages of seventeen and nineteen, respectively, Muriel gave birth to two out-of-wedlock children before marrying, at the age of twenty, commercial traveler William Kleinwort, by whom she had a daughter. After two years of something less than wedded bliss, Kleinwort sued his spouse for divorce on grounds of adultery, but the suit failed after Muriel successfully counterclaimed, accusing him of multiple counts of cruelty and seemingly paradoxically asserting that had there been any adultery, which she denied, he had condoned it. The next year, Muriel, although still legally married, heedlessly wed the native Scottish Murdo Munro, a self-described “theatrical artiste” and son of the late Douglas Munro, Chief Constable of the Highland counties of Ross and Cromarty. During their six-year union (Munro died in 1902), which produced a son who died in infancy, the venturesome Muriel commenced a scorching, scandalous affair with married man-about-town Gilbert Sackille, 8th Earl De La Warr, and featured prominently in the resultant divorce suit brought by the earl’s wife. One source cattily claims that in reality Muriel was no actress but “a cancan dancer” whom the beguiled Earl De La Warr “had first espied through a haze of whisky and cigar fumes in the music hall on the seafront” of Bexhill-on-Sea.
In 1908 Muriel wed Thomas Holding, from whom the actress, showing uncharacteristic constancy, separated two decades later, only a year before his untimely passing. Five years older than Thomas, Muriel had played his mother on stage in Ben-Hur. A photo of her in the role from 1913, when she was nearly forty years old, belies newspaper claims that she was “beautiful,” suggesting instead rather a formidable handsomeness on the order of the Roman goddess Juno. Her “marriage” to Thomas in fact had been bigamous too, for Muriel’s legal husband William Kleinwort was still very much alive at the time. After Thomas’ death the much married Muriel, whose acting career had declined in the 1920s, returned to England, where at the outbreak of the Second World War she was residing unhusbanded at an elegant Georgian mansion, Green Man House, in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire. Possibly coincidentally (or not), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding named the dreadful wife in her novella “Farewell to a Corpse” (1946) “Ildina,” which bears a close resemblance to the name of Lady Idina Sackville, Earl De La Warr’s notoriously promiscuous daughter, who figures, under other names, in novels by Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and Michael Arlen as well as James Fox’s White Mischief.
While Thomas Holding strutted on stage and film in the US and UK, his and George’s brother Joseph, having married a far obscurer farmer’s daughter by the fragrant name of Florelle, resided much more anonymously at the small Hudson Valley city of Beacon in Dutchess County, New York, where he worked as a nurse-attendant at Craig House, a sprawling Victorian Gothic mansion converted into a mental sanitarium. Over the years Craig House’s elite clientele, as it were, included Zelda Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy’s lobotomized sister Rosemary and Henry Fonda’s second wife, socialite Frances Ford Seymour (mother of Jane and Peter), who tragically committed suicide there in 1950. Perhaps such work took a heavy emotional toll on George, like his many executions had on the late British hangman John Ellis, who over seventeen years as Chief Executioner at Newgate Prison put an end to, among scores of others, Hawley Harvey Crippen, Frederick Seddon, Sir Roger Casement, Herbert Rowse Armstrong and Edith Thompson before taking his life in 1932, Sweeney Todd fashion, by slashing his throat with a straight razor. In 1941, according to a coroner’s inquest, Joseph Holding, then sixty-four, himself committed suicide four days after Christmas, making a noose out of a window sash cord, attaching it to a hook in his garage and hanging himself from it, having left no explanatory note behind him. (Appositely his and Florelle’s home stood right across from a cemetery.) The Holding brothers’ only sister, Lily, was likewise a trained nurse, although she remained in England, never marrying. It appears that none of George’s siblings ever produced any offspring.
After about six years of marriage, George and Elisabeth Holding with their young daughter Skeffington Quin, who was born in January 1917 in the Westchester County town of Mamaroneck (later home to mystery writer John Dickson Carr), relocated to a recently constructed Dutch colonial house in the borough of Staten Island, where Elisabeth gave birth in December 1919 to her and George’s second and final child, Antonia Sanxay. Residing with the Holdings at the Dutch colonial on Staten Island were the rest of Elisabeth’s family: her mother, Edith Gertrude Oliver, a divorced magazine editor; her younger sister, Eleanor Eaton Sanxay, a commercial artist recently separated from her husband, whom she later divorced; and her teenaged half-brother, Humphrey Marshall Oliver, who as an adult would move to Florida and become a Miami yacht broker. For her part Eleanor, who whimsically illustrated fiction published in the New York Tribune, later in life became the chief fashion consultant for eighty display windows at a New York department store.
In 1924 Elisabeth herself, after suffering a bout with pneumonia the previous year, departed New York with her husband and young daughters for a balmier clime in the British overseas territory of Bermuda, where George, who had remained a citizen of the United Kingdom, had obtained a consular position. (Upon her marriage to a British national, Elisabeth by the terms of the Expatriation Act of 1907 had immediately lost her American citizenship, although she would regain it when the Holdings returned to the United States in 1930, the Act having since been amended.) A photograph of Elisabeth and her two girls taken around this time shows a somewhat exhausted-looking woman in a large, overhanging hat. Later photos of the increasingly stout author have cemented in people’s minds the image of a mirthful, matronly woman incongruously writing murder fiction, like Queen of Crime Agatha Christie. “[S]he struck a decidedly matriarchal figure,” observed Jake Hinkson of the author back in 2013. “Something about Holding’s life smacks, on first glance, of the cozy English mystery tradition….she wasn’t a hard-living broad like Patricia Highsmith….she was a lady….a plump grandmother.” How misleading this first impression of Holding is.
An earlier photo of Holding—probably taken earlier in her marriage, when she lived on Staten Island—reveals a decidedly more bohemian looking individual, smiling and wearing a long string of beads, her left thumb hooked in her belt while she displays a cigarette in her right hand. One gets the impression that this is a woman who might have allowed ashes to fall into her aspics. Her editor at Simon & Schuster during the Forties and Fifties, pioneering female careerist Lee Wright, in 1946 observed of Holding to Frederick Dannay of Ellery Queen fame that the author was very much her own woman, explaining: “Miss Holding has a refreshing and iconoclastic mind: she thinks things out for herself, and when she expresses her opinions, they are not second-hand, not out of other people’s books or other people’s heads—they are her own.”
During the half-dozen years when the Holdings lived in Bermuda the family appears to have resided at Cedarhurst, a magnificent neoclassical mansion that today serves as the residence of the U. S. Consul General to the island. Yet after the Holdings returned to the United States in 1930, at the outset of the Great Depression, Elisabeth and George, following family tradition, separated (according to her daughter Antonia’s 2006 obituary), compelling Elisabeth, in order to support her daughters and mother (and perhaps her improvident husband as well), to rely more than ever upon her earnings as a writer of popular fiction, particularly the crime novels which came to the fore from 1934 onward as the country’s economic malaise lingered. As Cornell Woolrich, a crime writing contemporary of Holding, observed, while the market for light romance fiction suffered periodic chills from the economy’s vicissitudes, the market for murder stories remained hardy and perennial.
By the end of the decade, Elisabeth, her mother having passed away in 1938, resided with Skeffington and Antonia, now young women, at the famed Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. George, now sixty-three years old and less than three years away from death, resided at the Hotel as well, but he lived apart from his family in another suite and seems to have held no remunerative occupation at this time, despite Elisabeth’s brave boast in publicity material that she was the wife of a “distinguished English diplomat.” The prevalence of discontented and querulous male alcoholics in Holding’s fiction suggests a source of discord between the man and wife. After George’s death and the end of the war, Elisabeth would settle in at a Greenwich Village apartment at 25 East Tenth Street with Antonia and Skeffington, who married in 1946 and 1947 respectively, leaving their beloved mother to her writing, which included her widely acknowledged 1947 masterpiece, The Blank Wall (rewardingly filmed twice under the titles The Reckless Moment and The Deep End), and three later crime novels, as well as a dozen crime and fantasy/sci-fi stories.
In a 2012 piece written for a prior Stark House reprint of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding fiction, the author’s granddaughter Judith Rose Ardron describes her grandmother’s life as a desperate, unceasing bid, beset by her constant bad health, to keep the financial wolves from her family’s doors, with Ardron’s Grandfather George conspicuous only by his utter absence from the heroic family narrative:
[Writing] was no hobby—it was an all-consuming effort. [Elisabeth] could not find peace without knowing she could provide for her mother, herself and her girls’ future. The family fortunes were unpredictable, plagued by insecurity and lurching from the sale of one story to another….
It was a wearing way to live. Her health was not good. In 1923, at the age of thirty-four, she had pneumonia and was tormented by how she could continue to provide for her two little girls. By the age of thirty-nine she was experiencing extreme fatigue….Fatigue and depression continued to plague her but she strove to overcome all this by sheer force of will and strength of spirit driven by her fierce loyalty to her daughters.
Ardron writes that the spiritually indefatigable Elisabeth Sanxay Holding “came from a dynasty of strong women who were independent spirits in a world that had rigid ideas of a woman’s role and place in the economic order.” Certainly Elisabeth’s sister and her mother, Edith Gertrude Oliver, qualified as such. Edith Oliver was the youngest of four children of Frederick Hollick, a noted nineteenth-century sexologist, and his wife, Eleanor Eliza Bailey. Although on account of his pioneering lectures and writings in the United States the native English Dr. Hollick, author of The Marriage Guide, The Origin of Life, The Diseases of Women and many other books on sex and the human body, was harassed and subjected to obscenity trials, his work proved, as is so often true in such cases, extremely lucrative. Residing with his family on Staten Island in 1860, Hollick that year valued his wealth in personal and real property at fifty thousand dollars (some 1.6 million dollars today), a tally which demonstrates—if there ever had been any room for doubt—that, even in the years before the likes of such popular twentieth-century gurus as Alfred Kinsey and “Dr. Ruth,” sex talk sold.
According to modern authorities Hollick had “extraordinary publicity skills” and his lectures and writings on sex “attracted a significant middle-class following,” including a great many women, “who would make up his most loyal supporters for the remainder of his career.” Notes Donna Dennis of Hollick in her 2009 book Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York: “He emphasized the importance of sexual pleasure for married couples and the right of both women and men to control their own bodies. He offered advice on contraception and even advertised condoms. He also promoted the use of aphrodisiacs like tea, coffee, and marijuana to improve sexual performance and enjoyment.” Hollick’s Marriage Guide sold like proverbial (if not aphrodisiacal) hotcakes, going through over five hundred printings during the author’s lifetime; and by the middle of the century the famed sexologist had achieved national celebrity status.
Although Frederick Hollick’s own actual medical credentials evidently were questionable, however popular he may have been with deeply intrigued laypeople, his daughter Edith’s eldest brother became a doctor and her sister married a doctor, while her other brother, Charles Arthur Hollick, became a prominent American paleobotanist and the curator of fossil plants at Columbia University and the New York Botanical Garden. The baby of the family, Edith was the only Hollick offspring to have no scientific affiliation in her own life, in 1888 wedding, when she was twenty-six years old, Charles Skeffington Sanxay–son of attorney Skeffington Sanxay of old French Huguenot lineage and Jeanette Matilda Fickett, daughter of shipbuilder Francis Fickett; cousin of future shipping magnate Skeffington Sanxay Norton; a recent graduate of Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute; and a soon-to-be vice president of the New York Rubber Company. Elisabeth Sanxay was born to the couple the next year, followed two years later by her sister Eleanore, after which there were no more children from the union. The family resided at Colombia Heights in Brooklyn in a nineteenth-century row house (now replaced by a modern brutalist structure), outwardly the picture of upper class perfection.
In 1903, however, Charles Sanxay suddenly passed away from heart disease at the untimely age of forty, leaving his entire estate, in the will he had made but five days before his death, to be divided between “my two daughters, Lizzie and Eleanore,” who were then only thirteen and eleven respectively, and making no mention whatever of Edith, his wife of fifteen years. In lieu of Edith, Charles appointed a special guardian for their girls. Obviously something had set Charles bitterly against his spouse—but what?
Just eighteen days after Charles’ death—barely allowing her time to don and doff widow’s weeds—Edith Sanxay wed another man, five years younger than she, named John Nicholas Oliver, a salesman of building specialties from Washington, D. C. The new couple moved out of New York City with Elisabeth and Eleanor (the latter as an adult dropped the final “E” from her name) to a nondescript new house located at 60 Brookside Place, New Rochelle, where they were joined, less than six months after the marriage, by Master Humphrey Marshall Oliver, Edith’s newborn son by her new husband John. Surely Humphrey’s precipitate entry into a judgmental Edwardian world explains why Edith had dashed to the hymeneal altar.
By 1910 Elisabeth—who was educated in various private establishments and had graduated, along with her sister Eleanor, from the Packer Collegiate Institute (originally the Brooklyn Female Academy)—had taken employment as a governess, further indicating that her late father’s money had not been sufficient for her to maintain the idealized life of an American gentlewoman (although in 1915 she and her sister numbered among the inheritors of their deceased Grandmother Fickett’s substantial estate, valued at $22,000—nearly $600,000 today). By 1920 Elisabeth’s mother Edith had parted from her successor spouse, the reason due this time not to death but rather divorce, thereby for a second time depriving herself of a source of steady masculine income. Edith, who never remarried, retained her ex-husband’s surname, editing and publishing fiction under the name Edith Hollick Oliver. Tellingly, it was the Sanxay surname which Edith expunged, although it survives to the present day as the middle name of her vastly better known crime writer daughter.Over and over Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, like Edith Wharton, presents to her readers sagas of dark emotional problems hidden behind closed doors which even the miracle of modern appliances cannot solve.
The most interesting thing about Edith’s second husband likely was that he was one of the children of John Nicholas Oliver, Sr., a prominent nineteenth-century D. C. attorney, who two decades earlier had represented Lillie Christiancy in the divorce suit brought against her, on grounds of multiple infidelities, by her husband, former United States Senator and then current Minister Plenipotentiary to Peru Isaac P. Christiancy. The couple, whose age disparity was over four decades (at the time of their marriage in 1876, Lillie was twenty-one and her husband was sixty-three), had wed just eighteen months after the death of Christiancy’s first wife, much to the chagrin of the senator’s adult children, while he was residing at a boarding house run by Lillie’s mother. Theirs truly was the divorce scandal that had everything, including even the scheming Latin American gigolo beloved of Golden Age detective fiction writers and Lillie’s tragic untimely death as an institutionalized “raving lunatic” and chloral addict in 1883, just months after the court granted Christiancy his divorce (on grounds of desertion rather than infidelity). The contemporary view was that having her name dragged unceasingly though mud for more than two years had utterly undone Lillie Christiancy’s reason.
Admittedly the Christiancy divorce saga, which occupied page after page in American newspapers across the country between 1881 and 1883 (though it is oddly forgotten today), took place several years before Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was even born, and Lillie’s attorney, John N. Oliver, Sr., died in 1894, when Elisabeth was just five. Yet Elisabeth resided with her stepfather, John N. Oliver, Jr. during the decade between 1903 and 1913, from her mother Edith’s marriage to her own; and it seems not unlikely to me that the case might have been recalled in her presence, especially given the circumstances of her mother’s own precipitous second marriage, evidently the consequence of an adulterous relationship which Edith’s first husband, Charles Sanxay, had sought to punish in the will which he made on his deathbed. Coupled with the progressive views about women’s sexuality held by her maternal grandfather Frederick Hollick, who died in 1900 when Elisabeth was eleven, and her marital difficulties with her own husband, it should come as no surprise that marital misery, infidelity, illegitimacy, insanity, bigamy, divorce, alcoholism, and men and women in general straying beyond the stricter confines of moral and sexual convention are recurrent themes in Elisabeth’s crime fiction, recalling the work of her older contemporary Edith Wharton. Over and over Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, like Edith Wharton, presents to her readers sagas of dark emotional problems hidden behind closed doors which even the miracle of modern appliances cannot solve.
Nobody Would Listen: The Collected Mystery Fiction of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, recently published by Stark House, gathers nineteen works of short crime fiction by the author, from “Mollie: The Ideal Nurse,” Holding’s fourth published story, from January 1921 when she was just thirty-one years old, to “Game for Four Players,” which appeared nearly four decades later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in June 1958, more than three years after the author’s premature death at the age of sixty-five in 1955. The publication of so much of Holding’s short crime fiction in one mammoth volume is a signal moment in the genre’s history, giving the author, long acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s finest crime novelists, her due also as an accomplished chronicler of murder and other assorted malfeasance in its shorter forms.
The first piece of crime fiction which Holding is known to have published, the masterful “Mollie: The Ideal Nurse,” tells the tale of Rob and Mrs. Keating, a couple with two young children in the capable care of Mollie, their nigh-perfect nursemaid—barring Steve, the drunken lout of a husband with whom Mollie unhappily comes encumbered. How does one deal with a problem like Mollie’s mister? This short story–which like Susan Glaspell’s courtroom (and classroom) classic “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), includes serious subtext about marital relationships between couples, both genteel and menial–is told with perceptive wit and irony. “Once again there descended upon them that old fear well known to all [upper middle class] parents, that fear of their children,” observes the author at one point, when Mollie, seemingly reconciled with Steve, leaves the Keatings. How much of the tale was drawn from real life?The majority of Holding’s true short crime fiction dates from the 1940s and 1950s, the decades when the author achieved her pinnacle as a crime writer.
The majority of Holding’s true short crime fiction dates from the 1940s and 1950s, the decades when the author achieved her pinnacle as a crime writer. During this period she published a dozen crime stories and a single crime novella, all of which are collected in Nobody Would Listen, with the exception of “The Stranger in the Car,” which was originally published in The American Magazine in July 1949 and reprinted in 2013 in Sarah Weinman’s highly publicized anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. However, Holding published some short crime fiction before the outbreak of World War Two, including four original novellas from 1930-32—“The Chain of Death,” “The Girl in Armor,” “Brides of Crime” and “Hound’s Bay”—and a handful of short stories. Included in Nobody Would Listen are both “The Chain of Death,” which was published serially in Liberty over May-June 1930, and “Nobody Would Listen,” which was published in August 1935 in Mystery, a short-lived, heavily illustrated slick mystery magazine aimed at women readers.
Published around the same time as her early crime novels Miasma (1929) and Dark Power (1930), “Chain” is very much of its time, with a country house murder, a victim whom everyone conveniently hated, an ill-assorted house party of suspects and stiff characters who periodically ejaculate at each other epithets like “You hound!” and “You swine!” There is even a wealthy dilettante amateur sleuth of sorts, though things happen to him rather than the other way around. Classic detective fiction was not really Holding’s forte, yet this period piece is not without period charm, including an earnest leveling leftie medical student named Elsie Evans.
An altogether grimmer tale, effectively anticipating the brilliant succession of Holding’s deadly serious novels of psychological suspense that darkly commenced with The Death Wish (1934), is “Nobody Would Listen.” Events in the story are seen through the perceptions of focal character Mrs. Morissey, who accepts–the depressed economy being what it is–a position as cook and maid of all work at the isolated, forest-shrouded cottage of two middle-aged single women, Mrs. Torrance and her companion Miss Raleigh. After witnessing repeated recriminatory outbursts between the two genteel ladies, Mrs. Morissey direfully warns of impending violence at the cottage to a wealthy neighbor, the handsome young local clergyman and a local doctor, but no one pays her much heed. Reflects Mrs. Morissey of this complacency: “It’s because they’re ladies…If they were just poor people, or if they were foreigners, people would believe it.” As in “Mollie,” there is much discerning social observation in “Listen,” although this time it comes, more unusually for the period, from a working class perspective.
Holding lived for half-a-dozen years in Bermuda, where her husband George held some sort of consular position between 1924 and 1930, and during this time she, then a British citizen under American law like her husband, frequently visited islands in the Caribbean, where George had lived during the first decade of the century. Between 1944 and 1957, Holding published a half-dozen crime stories with Caribbean settings, these being “The Kiskadee Bird” (Cosmopolitan, 1944), “The Blue Envelope” (Collier’s Weekly,1944, under the pulpish title “Bait for a Killer”), “The Unbelievable Baroness” (The American Magazine), “People Do Fall Downstairs” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1947), “Most Audacious Crime” (Nero Wolfe Mystery Magazine, 1954) and “The Daring Doctor” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Hitchcock, 1957). All of the wartime tales concern the plights of war refugees, to whom the author displays decided sympathy. Two of them, “Bird” and “Baroness,” were reprinted, in 1945 and 1946 respectively, in A. L. Furman’s Forties Mystery Companion anthology series, while in 1959 “The Blue Envelope” reappeared, under that new title, in The Saint Detective Magazine.
“The Kiskadee Bird” takes place on the island of Puerto Azul, where Johnny Pepper has recently been appointed Deputy Police Commissioner. Like Holding’s husband, Johnny has a “natural gift for tongues” and additionally his father was in the Consular Service. With the onset of World War Two his job has been mostly dealing with “queer people coming into Puerto Azul these days”: sorting them out, examining their papers and asking them questions. The latest of these “queer people” to arrive at Puerto Azul, imperious Julia Alderton, daughter of American steel magnate Cyrus Alderton and a survivor of a ship torpedoed offshore, presents Johnny with an unusual problem indeed, one perhaps romantic as well as criminal.
The protagonist of “The Blue Envelope” is another Caribbean deputy police commissioner, George Neva of the island of San Fernago. He must determine whether the mysterious Alphonse Dulac is in fact a German spy and prevent an impulsive French refugee from getting herself killed. “The Unbelievable Baroness,” the best of this trio of wartime tales in my view, takes place on the island of Buenaventura and presents a vexing problem for Lieutenant Martin Hardy, Acting High Chief Commissioner of United States Police Forces for the territory. The mystery concerns an outsize refugee German baroness, her young companion Elsa Taube and her “unspeakable little dog,” Gustel, to whom the baroness evinces surpassing devotion. “My little dog has eleven years,” she touchingly explains, “I have to him a duty.”
The later trio of crime tales with Caribbean settings all have a series sleuth, Captain Martin Consadine, Commissioner of Police on the island of Puerto Azul, a locale familiar from “The Kiskadee Bird.” (We are not informed what became of Johnny Pepper.) In “People Do Fall Downstairs”—Holding’s first publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which had been founded six years earlier—the newly arrived Consadine (“He had been a policeman in Ceylon, in Demerara, in Trinidad, and elsewhere; he had almost forgotten Ireland, where he was born, London, where he had been trained.”) and Constable Merribel (“Merribel was invaluable to him, a portly coloured man of calm and decorous demeanour, with a colossal knowledge of the island and its inhabitants”) encounter the classic “Did he fall or was he pushed?” conundrum at the household of Captain William Jarvis of the Merchant Marine, which consists of, besides Jarvis himself, his alcoholic brother and his brother’s wife, handsome and handsy handyman Louis Hazen, and piously crafty Irish cook Mary Gogarty.
Possibly with “Downstairs” Holding had been encouraged to introduce a series sleuth by Frederic Dannay, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, who liked stories with recurring detectives. Whatever the case, however, Consadine did not appear again in another tale for seven years, when “Most Audacious Crime” was published in the January 1954 issue of Nero Wolfe Mystery Magazine, a lesser, short-lived rival of EQMM. (During the final full year of her life, Holding published no novel and only a pair of short stories, suggesting the ill health which led to her demise in February 1955.) In “Crime” Consadine investigates strange goings-on at the Joblyn household, consisting of Howard Joblyn, an American geologist “down here on some sort of survey,” Joblyn’s wallflower wife, Natalie, and Natalie’s forbidding spinster aunt, Miss Fanning. Their domestic situation has the poisonous tang of a true crime account.
In the final Consadine tale, Holding seems to have forgotten several details about her sleuth, giving his name as Dennis rather than Martin, his rank as Lieutenant rather than Captain and his locale as “the Caribbean island of St. Jerome” rather than Puerto Azul, while his assistant is now one Sergeant Mayblossom, “a stout colored man, looking soft as a teddy bear in his very snug white uniform, but in reality hard and muscular and alert, knowing everything about the island.” (Mayblossom sounds a lot like Constable Merribel.) The story’s having been published posthumously in Alfred Hitchock’s Mystery Magazine in March 1957, more than two years after the author’s death, surely explains the inconsistencies. In it Consadine is tasked with untangling the matter of the mysterious Doctor Thomas Pauli, whom cantankerous Mrs. Cobby claims is impudently impersonating her American professor spouse, who brought them to St. Jerome to complete a book, with the assistance of his Danish secretary Karen. Explodes Mrs. Cobby of Doctor Pauli, in a fine display of Fifties American paranoia: “He’s a Communist!…Who else would go prancing around the streets in a red necktie? The whole thing’s a Communist plot….” However, Mayblossom explains to his superior that while back during the war years cranky Mrs. Cobby had cried wolf on numerous occasions about German spies and such, every now and then she turned out to hit a nail on its head….
Holding’s Caribbean mysteries are attractive miniatures (comparatively speaking), but “Farewell to a Corpse,” a lengthy novella set in exurban New York that was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in October 1946, is the most substantial piece of short crime fiction that the author published in the postwar era, using murder to explore deeper matters than a puzzle. The editor of MBM perceptively described “Corpse” as “essentially a [moral] problem novel but [one] which combines elements of crime, danger and suspense to make it an outstanding mystery tale as well.”
The protagonist of “Corpse,” the amiable if somewhat feckless Felix Tellier, finds himself embroiled in a murder case, along with his wealthy, shrewish, daddy’s girl wife Ildina; his overbearing father-in-law Leroy Fuller, who will make you want never to hear the word “Nope” again; his doggedly devoted pal Augie West, whom Ildina dismisses contemptuously as a “vulgar little beast”; and his lovely old friend, Stephanie, or “Taffy” as he calls her, whom he first knew back when she was a mere schoolgirl. For this novella, Holding drew on themes that go back in her crime fiction a dozen years to The Death Wish. Like that protagonist in that novel, Felix is an easygoing fellow starting to feel a sense of dissatisfaction with his jealously possessive, insecure wife and his company job. (He is the progressive Personnel Manager in his father-in-law’s leather factory.) Increasingly he feels trapped in his life and yearns to become free again, to join the Merchant Marine and roam the seas in “space and freedom” as he once had planned. “Settled in a job, in a home, in a community,” he thinks discontentedly, “sometimes, in vivid flashes, this stability seemed…like a yawning trap.” To local populist leftist District Attorney Francis Bushey, Ildina provokingly blames the murder of their neighbor Mimi DePew on a tramp, or perhaps, recalling Mrs. Cobby from “The Daring Doctor,” “one of those Communists who hate everyone with any money”; yet Felix senses that the true culprit lies closer to home.
How much did a character like Felix Tellier owe inspiration to Holding’s own life and her husband we cannot know, but it seems not improbable that George Edwyn Holding, who roamed the Caribbean in his twenties before finally marrying at the age of thirty-seven, when he was working an adjuster in a marine insurance company, had a similar dissatisfaction with life’s—and marriage’s—confinements. Of his two-year-old marriage Felix tells himself: “Stop thinking about it. It will get better in time. People get adjusted to each other as time goes on. As time goes on, you get used to things, to anything, to everything, and you don’t mind anymore.”Holding’s short fiction is not chump change either, as readers now will be able to see for themselves with Stark House’s fine new collection of her work.
On the question of divorce, a not uncommon occurrence in the Holding ménage (Elisabeth’s half-brother, like her mother and sister, would divorce his spouse as well), Taffy, whose mother Denise is twice divorced and thrice married, unexpectedly urges to Felix her belief in the inviolability of the legal union between man and wife, in words that read like a criticism of the author’s mother: “I’ve known people who wouldn’t turn away an old servant, no matter how trying and disagreeable and useless she was. But they’d turn away the husband or wife they’d chosen.” Was this Holding’s own view of marriage and divorce? Does this explain why she stuck it out with George, whatever their problems, for three decades, until his death in 1943? Did she feel all her life a sense of opprobrium over her mother’s marital misadventures? In “Corpse” the odious Leroy Fuller sneers to Felix at the very notion that anyone with Taffy’s sordid upbringing could have a working moral compass: “Her mother had three husbands, two divorces. What do you think marriage means to her daughter? Not a damn thing.”
Holding’s second “farewell” story, her hard-boiled mystery parody “Farewell, Big Sister,” was the second of the three stories by her which Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine published, in July 1952. Anyone familiar with Raymond Chandler’s crime writing will surmise that it is his work that is the target of the parody. Interestingly, the notoriously grouchy and acerbic Chandler was a self-professed great admirer of Holding, effusively declaring of her in correspondence: “For my money she’s the top suspense writer of them all.” Chandler worked on a screenplay for Holding’s 1946 novel The Innocent Mrs. Duff, before giving it up on account, he later claimed, of studio interference. (The projected film was never produced.) It is doubtful that Holding was aware of Chandler’s esteem for her own work, but her amusing parody of his, which includes some notably surreal touches, is a knowing one. What would the hyper-sensitive Chandler have made of PI Coney Bassard (i.e., corny bastard) and Police Captain Canoodler?
The last of the three Holding crime stories which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “Glitter of Diamonds,” published in March 1955 a month after the author’s death, also mines a humorous vein, bearing something of a resemblance to “The Snowball Burglary,” a thirty-three-year-old Reggie Fortune detective story by English mystery writer H. C. Bailey. Indeed, Lady Beryl, the protagonist of the tale, is a very English aristocrat, summering in the Connecticut Berkshires at a house lent her by an American friend. Lady Beryl has had imposed upon her as a companion one Mademoiselle Gervaise d’Arville, a very earnest leftist young woman with whom she has nothing in common and for whom she has nothing actually to do. To deal with the problem of Gervaise, Lady Beryl turns to crime, getting some unwitting help in the process from her equally earnest insurance investigator nephew Phillip Phipps. One would never guess from this sparklingly amusing story that its author was nearing her death.
Somewhat reminiscent of “Glitter of Diamonds,” albeit in a dark vein, is “The Legacy,” which was published in Liberty in 1950. In it Mrs. Lamb, like Lady Beryl in “Diamonds,” has a companion temporarily foisted upon her, in this case by a wealthy cousin, Laurie Jacobs, while Laurie is away, ostensibly touring Mexico. Laurie warns Mrs. Lamb of her domestic: “She’s really wonderful, only she’s got to be kept busy, or she gets queer”—and never have truer words been spoken. Readers who have perused Nedra Tyre’s short classic crime novel Death of an Intruder (1953), reissued by Stark House in 2022, should see enough similarity in the two works to wonder whether Tyre might have been influenced by Holding’s disquieting earlier tale.
Another posthumously published crime story by Holding is “Very, Very Dark Mink,” which first appeared in The Saint Detective Magazine in December 1956, nearly two years after the author’s passing. In “Mink” Albert Pennington, an employee in a New York steamship company, is called upon by an old love—the boss’ much younger wife no less—to help put a stop to a blackmailer who menaces them both. Things take a surprising turn from there. Holding’s final original published tale, “Game for Four Players,” which was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in June 1958, more than three years after the author’s death, is another ironic tale of sex shenanigans. When the story opens, down on her luck Desiree walks through “the dismal and almost empty lobby of the third-rate little hotel” to commence a game—a badger game—with an unsuspecting male at the dowdy hotel’s so-called Paris Grill—but little does she realize how complicated this particular game will get. Like “Mink,” “Game” could have made an excellent episode of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In addition to short crime fiction, Holding during the Fifties published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction a trio of intriguing tales of the uncanny, which one might liken unto contemporary works by authors Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. (Indeed, Jackson appeared in MFSF as well.) These stories are “Friday, the Nineteenth,” “Shadow of Wings” and “The Strange Children.” The first of them, “Friday, the Nineteenth,” which was published in MFSF in the summer of 1950, is an unnerving time dislocation tale about an adulterous couple, something like a nightmarish version of the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day.
“Shadow of Wings,” published in MFSF in July 1954, was the final Holding story published during the author’s lifetime. Readers will be reminded of “The Birds,” Daphne du Maurier’s classic apocalyptic novella (and the inspiration for the classic Alfred Hitchcock film), which first appeared in the United States the previous year in du Maurier’s short fiction collection Kiss Me Again, Stranger. However, Holding takes the theme of bizarre actions by massed flocks of birds in a different direction. In 2021 anthologist Mike Ashley included this striking tale, which in its quirky way anticipates Rachel Carson’s landmark environmentalist tome Silent Spring (1962), in his British Library short fiction collection Nature’s Warnings.
In “Wings” Holding celebrates individualism and repeatedly urges that ostensible scientific “experts” are not necessarily to be trusted by the public, views with currency today, in this era of impassioned Covid mask protests and raucous school board meetings:
That’s it, said Stan to himself. That’s the matter with us today. We all believe there are experts around, to fix up anything and everything. Soil erosion, rivers deflected, droughts, forests destroyed, natural resources wasted away. Never mind. Scientists will make food, control soil, or water. Plagues? Let ‘em come, polio, flu, anything. Scientists will cope with them. They’ll also deal with crime, insanity, family rows.
….we’re trained to look for an expert, in any sort of trouble. Don’t try to do anything for yourself, ever….Don’t try to figure out what sort of education and training your own children need. You’ll ruin their lives. Call in a psychiatrist.
The last in this trio of Holding’s “tall” tales is the only overtly supernatural one in the bunch: “The Strange Children,” published in August 1955, seven months after Holding’s voice was silenced by the grave. In this tale young Marjorie Smith’s night of babysitting for a pair of children whom she has never met before turns very strange and unsettling indeed, especially after she spies the children up and out of bed and talking to an unknown man….One might initially be reminded of the 1979 film shocker When a Stranger Calls, but the story takes an appropriately fantastical turn, becoming a moving meditation on the state of life after death from an author near the end of her own earthly existence. The weird tale was one of the few Holding short stories to have been reprinted in the twentieth century, appearing in Ballantine’s excellent Chamber of Horrors series in the splendid 1961 anthology Alone by Night.
Hear me out: The wonderful variety and high quality of the tales collected in Nobody Would Listen confirms Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s stature as one of the twentieth century’s most significant crime writers, not only as a bridge between the so-called “Had I But Known” mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart and her many followers and the postwar psychological suspense and noir of such noted crime writers as Margaret Millar, Celia Fremlin, Shelley Smith, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, as writer Maxim Jakubowski noted in a pivotal reappraisal of Holding in the Guardian in 2001, but as a serious and versatile mainstream author who shared affinities with such towering literary figures as Edith Wharton, Susan Glaspell and Shirley Jackson. Acknowledging Holding’s sadly untimely death in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1955, Editor Anthony Boucher pronounced that the author’s “series of psychological suspense stories of murder” were “so far ahead of their times in delicacy and depth that she may almost be said to have created the modern murder novel.” Holding’s short fiction is not chump change either, as readers now will be able to see for themselves with Stark House’s fine new collection of her work.