Elisabeth Sanxay Holding,
The Old Battle-Ax
and Dark Power
(Stark House, 2008)

There are few literary pleasures more satisfying than discovering an author whose work has been long forgotten, whose books have been out of print and unavailable for years, but who would have been found, in a better world, in every bookstore and library.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of those authors. Born in Brooklyn in 1889, she began publishing mainstream novels in 1920 and through the '20s pursued a career as a serious writer of psychological realism.

The Depression ended all that. When the crash hit, the market changed and she could no longer sell her realistic novels. To keep her career alive, she turned to suspense novels -- books that weren't simply mysteries, but were more psychological studies of their protagonists. As the introduction to this volume claims, Holding was one of the first to write not whodunits, but whydunits. In all, she published 25 novels, 19 of them in the suspense field. By the late '50s, though, all of them were out of print and forgotten.

Now, Stark House has reprinted two in a single volume, and it's great to see them back. In The Old Battle-Ax, Mrs. Herriot, the central character, is a stiff, closely laced, middle-aged woman who is completely dependent on the good will of others. To her, appearance is reality. When her sister Madge comes to visit her from Europe, Mrs. Herriot is horrified at how coarse and unrefined her sister has become. But even as Mrs. Herriot tries to explain away her sister's behavior and keep her hidden, Madge is found dead on the sidewalk outside the house.

Then a very strange set of occurrences begin. First, Mrs. Herriot, flustered and confused, denies knowing the dead woman. Her sister, she says, is upstairs in her room, sleeping. Then the members of her household begin conspiring to protect her. Her niece pretends to be Madge and her chauffeur orchestrates a coverup.

What is it, exactly, that they are covering up and who are they protecting? As the plot unfolds, Mrs. Herriot is forced to take a close look at who she is and what kind of danger she is in.

Dark Power also features a closed-off, tight-laced woman. Diana Leonard, the protagonist, discovers that her Aunt Emma is a psychologist who sees the members of her household as subjects for her experiments. Her uncle has touches of the sadist to him and their son, ruined by growing up with this mother, is a helpless drunk with no sense of self or personal power. Diana comes to their home but discovers that the family's motives in inviting her were not what they had appeared to be.

There is a strong element of the gothic to Dark Power, but it isn't the gothic of the paperback romances that flood the market. Holding's emphasis on character study and develop makes the gothic elements seem more like the novels of the Brontes.

Reading these two novels makes you hope that somewhere a publisher is preparing to reissue Holding's other 23.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

20 December 2008

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