Lisa Scottoline on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall
Almost seventy years after it was written, The Blank Wall remains remarkably fresh and modern. The pulpy bra-and-panties cover image on my paperback copy may be dated, but Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s book is one of the best crime fiction novels I’ve read in a long time. The plot and pace keep the pages turning, but the book’s power lies in the complex portrait of its main character, Lucia Holley. A housewife and mother of two whose husband is away at war, Lucia is portrayed as a woman with ordinary insecurities. She worries about her looks, thinking that she used to be pretty, but fears she “had lost any coquetry she ever had.” At one point, she calls herself “stupid,” and when she travels to New York City to confront her daughter’s boyfriend, she feels “countrified” in the fancy lobby and wishes she were one of those “woman-of-the-world” mothers.
She hides her insecurities and feels vaguely like an impostor. She sneaks a cigarette now and then, admitting that smoking was “only one of her small deceptions.” And when she writes to her husband, she doesn’t mention the troubles she’s having with their daughter, or reveal that she feels inadequate as a mother, wishing she were “one of those wise, humorous, tolerant mothers in plays and books.”
She’s not a Superwoman but an Everywoman who empowers herself through the occasional pep talk. And when she is confronted with an extreme dilemma—how to deal with a corpse whose presence could destroy her family—she reminds herself that she can deal with the horror of the situation by drawing on everything she knows as a wife and mother: “She had the resourcefulness of the mother, the domestic woman, accustomed to emergencies. Again and again she had to deal with accidents, sudden illnesses, breakdowns. For years she had been the person who was responsible in an emergency…” As she sets about hiding the body, she tells herself: “No, I can do this.”
Lucia’s portrait is enriched by Holding’s portrayal of her fraught relationships with others in her family and household. She feels frustrated by her inability to control her petulant and beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter. She is hardly middle-aged; in fact she married young in hopes of freeing herself from her strong-willed father. That plan having backfired with the outbreak of war, she finds herself torn between her father and her daughter, trying to please both.
Lucia does have one close friend, her African American housekeeper, Sibyl. Sibyl has the confidence that Lucia lacks; she is the better organized of the two and more skilled as a “marketer,” able to trade precious ration stamps for the best items in the wartime grocery. Sibyl even lends Lucia money to cover an overdraft caused by her careless banking. Although Sibyl is referred to as “colored” in the novel, she isn’t portrayed as inferior to Lucia in any way, although the racial and social divide is made clear when Lucia realizes that although Sibyl knew her better than anyone else, she herself “knew curiously little about Sibyl. She did not know Sybil’s age, or where she had been born, what family she had, or what her friends did. Simply, she loved and trusted Sibyl without reservation.” As The Blank Wall unfolds, Lucia will come to know as much about Sybil as Sybil knows about her, and their relationship will ripen into a deeper and truer friendship.
If so many classics are stories about families it’s because families are forever. The most compelling drama springs from the most powerful emotions, and they will often be found in the love—and occasionally, the hate—that settles into the chairs around the kitchen table in any American home. The sudden violent death that drives the plot in The Blank Wall could not have happened and would not have had the same consequences without the specific dynamics of the Holley family. In the end we are left wondering whether those dynamics can ever be the same again.
On The Reckless Moment film (1949), directed by Max Ophuls:
- “The Reckless Moment: Max Ophuls’ Masterpiece of Middle Class America” by Sean Axmaker, at Parallax View
- Review by Tony D’Ambra at FilmsNoir.net
- Review by James White at Obscure Classics
- “Max Ophuls: Noir’s Stealthy Modernist” by Marc Svetov, in the Noir City Sentinel (PDF)
- Review by Douglass Messerli at World Cinema Review
- “Ophuls in Hollywood: The Reckless Moment” at Laughing Willow Letters
- Director Todd Haynes gives a 22-minute introduction to The Reckless Moment
- Watch The Reckless Moment (1949)
On The Deep End film (2001), starring Tilda Swinton and based on The Blank Wall: