Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car" published in 1949 in The American magazine, this week's short story installment is another really excellent read. At just over 70 pages it is the longest story in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and she uses each and every page to fully develop her characters, the plot and the unravelling of the 'mystery' which is central to the story. Nothing is wasted here and there are a few surprises including the ending, which I am still thinking about and wondering if it is not quite as straightforward as I first thought. I kept thinking that this would make a great movie and was sure it must have been filmed, but apparently not. But Holding's work has been adapted to the big screen.
I've already put in a library request for her novel, The Blank Wall, which Persephone Books reissued some years back. It was made into a movie in 1949 under the title The Reckless Moment and then once again in 2001 as The Deep End. Holding, a diplomat's wife, began by writing romances but switched to suspense stories after the stock market crashed in 1929. Another case of a woman writer needing to help pay bills and make ends meet. And a successful and lauded one at that. Raymond Chandler was a fan.
"For my money she's the top suspense writer of them all. She doesn't pour it one and make you feel irritated. Her characters are wonderful; and she has a sort of inner calm which I find very attractive."
Do you get the feeling from that quote that Chandler must have gotten easily irritated by other writers? Now I wonder What I am missing out on. She wrote nineteen suspense novels. Weinman calls her work "subtle, psychologically nuanced portraits of women making sense of troubled marriages, conflicted relationships with children, or intrigue thrown up by the larger world." Now that I've read the story and am rereading Weinman's introduction to it, it sheds a little more light on things and I think there is more to the story than meets the eye.
The story is narrated by the father of a young woman who may or may not have been involved in the murder of a man. Carrol Charleroy is a business man who is used to being in charge and keeping things well under control. His wife Helen has been ill with the flu and is recuperating in the hospital. Almost all his decisions are informed by this and he hesitates at each step knowing he does not want her bothered or burdened by whatever shocking events have taken place. One night as he waits up for his daughter Julia, he hears her stumble up the stairs. When he checks on her he notices a red mark on the bridge of her nose. And then the next morning she appears with a black eye. The previous night the bruise had not had a chance to form. Obviously something potentially awful and certainly disgraceful happened.
Julia is a girl of "inflexible pride and composure" assured of herself and in control. But she cannot remember what happened the night before. She went out with a family relative and his wife but came back with a man who is their friend. A man who she recollects only vaguely. She knows she left with him and that she somehow made it back home but whatever occurred between these two events is a complete blank. Whatever happened, it can't get back to her mother. It's decided that Miss Ewing, who taught the children piano and is a trusted and close family friend, will accompany Julia to the country where she can rest while her bruises fade.
There is something fishy going on. The reader knows it and so does Mr. Charleroy. Nothing is spoken aloud but events quickly steamroll one after another. First the body of a man appears and who is perhaps the same man who was with Julia the night before. A detective begins asking difficult questions. A wallet is discovered. And another man claiming to know Julia, but who she refuses to see, shows up. There is something possibly sinister and slightly seedy going on. And such pains are taken to keep it all quiet, to not worry Helen. But in the face of such sordidness Helen amazingly calm and collected that the reader wonders just who is really in control.
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"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" by Denis Johnson is this week's New Yorker story (March 3 issue). The story is episodic in nature; it reads almost as though it is broken into chapters. Apparently Johnson (this is my first taste of his work by the way) has spent seven or eight years working on the story. And he calls this one 'fast' story. It seems he lets them percolate for many years between first inspiration and final draft. You can read the Q&A with him here. I love this line and it resonated with me:
"This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life--the distance I've travelled from my own youth, the persistance of the old regrests, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms--that I almost crashed the car."
Okay, all but that last bit resonated with me. (I don't own a car to crash!). I can so understand that velocity of life thing--I am going through that myself at the moment. There is some wonderful subtle humor here, and I love the way he tells his story(ies). The narrator is a man who has passed middle age and sort of reflects on his life--well, sort of. It's more than just a slice of life sort of story, yet he tells about different people and experiences. The tone is sort of melancholic--I liked it. Definitely a story to read slowly. He has won all sorts of awards including the National Book Award, so yet another author to go on my list of authors to explore and read more of. He has a book coming out in the fall.
It’s called "The Laughing Monsters," and it’s due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux next fall, if somebody would only finish writing it. It’s set in Sierra Leone, Congo, and Uganda. I believe it falls into the category of "literary thriller."
Hah--got a kick out of that answer. I'll look for it! He has a knack for good titles.