Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lady KillerI had my first taste of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work just a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed Net of Cobwebs. I was deeply impressed with that novel’s clever and thoughtful presentation of its unreliable protagonist and was hungry for more so when I came across a copy of Lady Killer I couldn’t resist putting it to the top of my To Be Read pile.

Seven months before the novel begins Honey married Weaver Stapleton, a wealthy older man primarily for his money. While their courtship had been pleasant, the couple find themselves arguing constantly and she is wondering if she has made a terrible mistake.

The novel begins with them taking a Caribbean cruise together but as the voyage gets underway Honey begins to become suspicious of a fellow passenger whose new wife seems sick, complaining that the food tastes strange, and whose luggage mysteriously vanished before they set sail. She soon begins to worry that the husband plans to kill his wife but whenever she tries to raise the matter with Weaver or her fellow passengers her fears are dismissed.

The blurb you will find on popular e-book sites will give you more details about the plot but this novella is short enough that I don’t want to spoil too much about where it goes. Suffice it to say that there is a body and the latter half of the novel has elements of the detective story about it, albeit couched in the style of a psychological thriller.

Lady Killer is about the relationships between men and women and their comparative statuses within 1940s society. Honey is intuitive and persistent but she is hindered in her efforts to protect her new friend by gender expectations and roles. Whenever she discusses her fears she is treated as hysterical by the crew and by her fellow passengers, male and female, forcing her into a position where she has to act on her own. Even the person she believes will be a victim appears to refuse her help.

While Holding writes in the third person, she frequently slips into a first person perspective for a line or two to share Honey’s thoughts or state of mind and she does not show us events from anyone else’s perspective. This means the reader only really gets to experience them as Honey interprets them, making her a potentially unreliable narrator.

The reader feels Honey’s growing isolation throughout the novella and her building sense of desperation as her efforts to intervene keep being blocked. I was also quite struck by how I started to question the opinions I had formed about what had happened in light of the responses of her fellow passengers and the authority figures on the boat. Could she really be imagining it? You feel her powerlessness in those moments and though Honey can at times be quite rude and unpleasant, I found her determination in the face of these obstacles to be quite endearing.

The tension steadily builds throughout the first half of the book, climaxing with the discovery of a body on the boat. That moment is effective, not only because it transitions us to a new phase of the story in which Honey becomes a more active detective-type figure but also because it allows from some further ideas and themes to be introduced, complicating Honey’s relationships with her husband and her fellow passengers.

Honey’s relationship with Weaver is simultaneously the most intriguing and the most underwhelming part of the narrative. This is initially presented to the reader as an example of an uneven power dynamic where Weaver feels he is better than Honey and so resents what he regards as her shortcomings yet later in the novel we get to hear an alternative perspective on that relationship.

The reason this aspect of the story ultimately underwhelms is because of the way it is resolved or, perhaps more accurately, is not resolved at all. The narrative seems built towards having a major confrontation between the two and yet Holding never gives us that sort of moment.

I was far more impressed with the resolution to the mystery element of the novel which I found to be very cleverly worked. I was particularly taken with the final few pages of the novel which strike a sharp yet ambiguous note that I am sure will stay with me for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was so struck by an ending that managed to simultaneously feel like it came from nowhere and yet is the logical culmination of all that had gone before.

It was an impressive end to a novella that I found to be highly engaging both as a mystery and as a piece of social commentary. Not only is it an even better read than Net of Cobwebs, it is a book that makes me want to run out and buy copies of everything else that Holding ever wrote.

Net of Cobwebs by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

NetofCobwebsMalcolm 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!