Praised by Raymond Chandler as “the top suspense writer of them all,” Elisabeth Sanxay Holding excelled at the exploration of domestic unease. The Blank Wall exemplifies the drama of the sheltered housewife forced to take charge. While her husband serves overseas during World War II, Lucia Holley finds herself in the midst of a situation involving blackmail and manslaughter. She becomes quickly aware that the habits of her life, the domestic expectations that surround her, make it difficult for her to act with the slightest independence, and she must herself begin to behave like a criminal in order to deal with a threat to her family of which they must never know. In the course of the action she becomes involved with a man who is a prototypical fallen angel, adding the possibility of forbidden romance. The ambivalence with which Holding depicts the household sphere that Lucia works so hard to protect is matched by her subtle exploration of questions of guilt and responsibility in a middle class facade of harmony.

Lisa Scottoline on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall

Lisa Scottoline.

Lisa Scottoline

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.

Lisa Scottoline is a New York Times best-selling and Edgar Award–winning author of twenty-four novels, published in thirty-five countries with more than thirty million copies in print in the United States. She also writes a weekly humor column with her daughter, Francesca Serritella, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and those critically acclaimed stories have been adapted into a series of memoirs, the most recent of which is Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? She lives in the Philadelphia area with an array of disobedient pets.

The Reckless Moment (1949, directed by Max Ophuls)

Starring Joan Bennett and James Mason

The Deep End (2001, written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel)

Based on The Blank Wall and starring Tilda Swinton