Originally Published 1946
Malcolm Drake had been a merchant seaman, but has returned from the war a changed man, his nerves completely frayed. Now he lives at his brother Arthur’s house, with his sister-in-law Helene and her sister Virginia—and their domineering Aunt Evie. Aunt Evie only wants what is best for Malcolm, of course, but when she drops dead one evening at a party, the rumors quickly spread that he had something to do with it. Dr. Lurie is sure that Malcolm had loaded her glass with alcohol, inducing a heart attack. The butler, Ben, even claims to have seen him do it. One of the guests, Aunt Evie’s young protégé, Ivan Jenette, has news to the contrary, but has conveniently disappeared. Their neighbor, Lily Kingscrown, believes in his innocence, but there is something decidedly strange going on at her house—her own maid goes into screaming fits for apparently no reason. And now the police have some questions of their own. Malcolm is enmeshed in a neb of cobwebs, and the strands are growing tighter by the moment.
Malcolm Drake is suffering from shock after the ship he was on is sunk by a German U-boat. He holds himself personally responsible for the death of a fellow crew member and while staying in the Caribbean to convalesce he fell into the habit of taking barbiturates and alcohol to help him sleep.
His physician disagrees with that course of action, regarding it as dangerous, and refuses to prescribe any more of the drug. He returns to live in his brother’s home, secretly acquiring further supplies of the drug to the consternation of his family including his judgmental Aunt Evie.
After being criticized for his drinking one afternoon, Malcolm dares Evie to drink an alcoholic drink and mixes a splash of liquor in with her ginger ale. He is sure he didn’t give her enough to even give her a buzz but she soon drops dead, apparently from the effects of the alcohol, and several of the other people in the room claim they saw him put a much heavier dose of the liquor into the glass than he remembers.
This is my first experience reading anything by Holding and I was impressed by the way the novel’s psychological focus. The disconnect between what Malcolm recalls and what people around him claim he did is one of the themes that runs throughout this novel as we are encouraged to question his judgement and memory, perhaps wondering if he might be the killer after all.
Holding does a superb job of managing to sustain this doubt through much of the narrative. While this novel is not a first person account, it is sympathetic enough to Malcolm’s experiences that we may wonder if we are being misled. One of the reasons for this is his uncanny ability to turn up right where a person is found murdered and in each case he seems tied to the means that are used. Another is that while everyone in his family does not want to hold him accountable, it seems clear that they all appear to believe him guilty.
It helps that Malcolm is an interesting character, haunted by his wartime experiences and that he already has a strong sense of his own guilt. It is interesting to learn just what lies behind those feelings and to see his struggle to talk about the things that affect him. Today we would identify him as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and certainly it is one of the more compelling renderings of those experiences in Golden Age fiction.
The story unfolds at a quick pace with Holding writing in quite an economical style. It took me a moment to adjust to the brisk pacing which, coupled with Malcolm’s unreliability, made a few moments and character relationships a little hard to follow. I soon made that adjustment however and found the story to be quite compelling and intriguing.
The solution as to what has happened is quite clever and perhaps could not have been achieved as effectively in a longer work. I think it fits with the overall themes of the novel fairly well though and while I was not shocked or surprised, the moment of the reveal still had impact.
Overall, I was impressed with this and enjoyed it a lot. The story was clever and I think Malcolm is an interesting protagonist. I will certainly be interested to try more from Holding and, if anyone has a favorite title, I’d be glad of the recommendations!