The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

The Death Wish by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“He hates his wife. He’s not just irritated or bored with her. He hates her. That’s a damned ugly thing.”

Every morning, Shawe Delancey drives to the station, commutes to the office, then comes home again for dinner with his wife. On the surface, his life seems ordinary. The truth is quite different, however. His wife Josephine flies into miserable rages, demanding that he account for every moment of his day. Delancey is driven to the station by a chauffeured limousine paid for by his wife. All day, he sits alone in an office also financed by Josephine, waiting for business that never comes. And every evening, he returns, at the last possible moment, to a lonely house. It’s always just him and Josephine because she has quarreled with all the neighbors.

If only he could be more like his friend Bob Whitestone, with a loving wife like Rosalind. Whitestone seems to have everything a man could want—until the night he shocks Delancey with words that will change both of their lives forever: “I wish to God I could kill her.”

The Death Wish is a powerful work of psychological suspense that hinges on the danger of words, the way a wish, once spoken aloud, becomes real, regardless of whether it is ever acted upon. In a single, horrifying moment, Delancey finds himself bound to Whitestone forever by their shared desire to kill their wives. Whether either murder actually takes place is not the point. What Elisabeth Sanxay Holding so brilliantly explores is what happens to an ordinary person as they discover the evil that lies hidden within themselves.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Delancey would find Josephine difficult to deal with. Her jealousy and bad temper are exhausting; at the moment, the only friends she has left are the ones she’s bought, which include her husband. The shy, insignificant Delancey is an unlikely subject for Josephine’s passion, but it is precisely his milquetoast nature that makes it possible to withstand these explosions.

He felt no anger against her, only an immense boredom. These scenes had happened before; she made herself ill by them, by her wild unreasonable jealousy. He had never been unfaithful to her, or even contemplated such a thing, but he could not convince her of that. The only way to end these miserable episodes was by making love to her, flattering her, letting her “forgive” him—for what he had not done.

Whitestone’s predicament is less obvious. Rosalind is everything Josephine is not: young, cheerful, and unfailingly supportive of her husband’s artistic career. She never complains about their financial struggles. According to Whitestone, however, Rosalind subtly undermines his confidence at every turn, convincing all of their friends that his failure as a husband is wearing her down to the bone. She is determined to portray herself as his victim, plastering on “that brave, bright smile.”

Into the lives of these two men comes Elsie Sackett, the young houseguest of their neighbor. Is Elsie a nice girl, a ministering angel, a femme fatale, or simply a stubborn fool? She is all of these things and more. The male characters see Elsie as a puzzle to be solved. What they fail to realize is that she isn’t very interested in being figured out. She remains defiantly, perhaps ruinously, independent, determined to follow her own star no matter where it may lead her. “Whatever else you might say about her, she’s certainly no coquette,” one character observes. “But she’s a troublemaker…”

Over the course of the novel, Elsie will develop quite different relationships with Whitestone, Delancey, and fellow guest Hugh Acheson. Hugh is a wealthy sportsman with little interest in women; he is used to having eligible young ladies dangled in front of him and equally accustomed to politely brushing them off. He’s never met anyone quite like Elsie, though it’s less her personality that attracts him than the strange predicament she finds herself in. For the man who has everything, there is nothing more enticing than a real-life hunt, with murder as the stakes.

Hugh’s forays into amateur detection do not make him popular with the other characters, who label him a “prig” and “hard.” The Death Wish is explicit about the hazards of trying to solve a crime among people you know, aware all the while that the truth will hurt some of them greatly. Here, the police are nothing more than distant enemies. Holding keeps all interactions with law enforcement off screen—visits to the police station and jail are not important for what evidence they might disclose, but for what they reveal about the characters and their emotions. In fact, the reader forgets for long stretches of time that the police are even involved, allowing for some big surprises at the end. For this group, the police are merely a technicality. The one they really fear is Hugh, whose unrelenting pursuit of justice gives him the power of life or death over his friends.

I don’t enjoy hunting down the poor devil. I’m sorry for him…But it’s morbid—it’s dangerous—to keep all your pity for the people who break the laws, and have none for the victims. There’s no one who gets through life without any temptations. Most people are able to resist them, and they’re the ones to be considered, not the others.

It is Hugh, just as much as Delancey and Whitestone, who must confront an evil wish in his own heart. What right does he have to set himself up as an avenging angel, knowing that his quest must end in someone else’s death?

All of these characters are wonderfully complex. Delancey, who views himself as an indulgent and long-suffering husband, is also a spoiled gold-digger. Elsie is fiercely loyal, but to all the wrong people, unrepentant at the havoc she wreaks in the process. Even Josephine’s antics come from a pure love for her husband. There are no simple archetypes here. Everyone is a real person with both good and bad impulses, loves and hatreds that don’t always make sense. They mostly mean well, and that’s exactly what gets them into trouble.

Like Jean Potts’ 1962 novel The Evil WishThe Death Wish is not too interested in the literal truth of whether its characters have committed murder. The guilt is in the wishing. The moment Whitestone and Delancey admit, even just in their own minds, that they long for the death of another human being, they are lost. This guilty knowledge will shape the rest of their lives—everything that happens from this point on springs from that original sin. The Death Wish shows just how much rotten fruit can grow from a single poisoned tree.

Second Opinion

Pretty Sinister

I think [Holding] is one of the unsung pioneers in American crime fiction and she deserves to be noticed for her accomplishments.

Availability

The Death Wish is available in a double volume with Net of Cobwebs from Stark House.

Widows Mite (1952) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Widow's Mite by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“You’ve been living in a house with a murderer. And you’re not even very curious to know who the murderer is.”

The chipmunk and the bird. That’s all Tilly can think of when she sees cousin Sybil and her husband Howard lying unconscious in Sybil’s bedroom. Earlier that day, Tilly’s young son Robert was frightened by a “big boy” who dropped poison into the mouths of a chipmunk and a bird. Tilly thought his story was a figment of his imagination—until Robert showed her the dead animals, laid out side by side. Just like Sibyl and Howard.

The “arrogant and domineering” Sibyl has never been easy to please. As a widow with a small income, Tilly appreciates her cousin’s invitation to spend the summer, but it’s sometimes difficult to accept her role as a poor relation. After Sibyl is killed, however, Tilly discovers herself in a new, and even worse position: murder suspect.

Widow's Mite by Elisabeth Sanxay HoldingWidow’s Mite is an amiable but undercooked effort from the usually excellent Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s not menacing enough to be a suspense novel, not deep enough to be a psychological study, and not baffling enough to be a detective story. While it’s pleasant enough to read, there’s no real purpose to it.

Tilly is a born people-pleaser, though lately her efforts don’t seem to please anyone. Early on, she is so cowed by Sybil that Tilly gives in to the other woman’s demand for sleeping pills even though she has been drinking heavily. When she later notices that her cousin may be sleeping too deeply, she doesn’t even try to wake her up for fear of Sybil’s wrath. Needless to say, Tilly feels awful when it turns out Sybil really has died. But how can she reveal to police that Sybil could have been poisoned earlier than they believe without also revealing that she herself may have been the one to administer the poison?

After Sybil’s death, Tilly transfers her obedience to Sam Osborne, a total stranger. Osborne seems reasonable at first, complaining about detective stories “with those fool girls in them.”

“Those dim-wits,” he said. “The ones that always keep something back from the police or the famous detective The girls that see a man coming out of the summer-house where the body is found later, and never tell. The girls that see the good-for-nothing nephew sneaking something into Auntie’s tea but never say a word when Auntie drops dead […] It’s all damn nonsense,” said Osborne, “and it never works. If anyone’s in any way mixed up in a police case, the only thing to do is to tell the truth about what you know, and tell it quick.”

Almost immediately, however, he has a radical change of heart and encourages Tilly to do all kinds of suspicious things. Though Osborne accuses Tilly of being too “innocent” and “artless,” he’s more than happy to take advantage of her trusting nature. She sees nothing to worry about, even as his advice gets her into more and more trouble. There’s nothing romantic about the way Osborne takes charge of Tilly’s life, and the only suspense is wondering how he’ll manage to top his previous bad ideas (which he always does).

The other suspects are also quick to impose upon Tilly’s meek nature. What should be a house of mourning soon becomes a madhouse. Sybil’s husband Howard survives the attempt on his life, but vacillates about whether he’s going to let Tilly and her son stay now that Sybil is gone. The high-strung Howard is barely able to handle the aftermath of Sybil’s murder but, as Osborne reminds Tilly, Howard didn’t find life with Sybil very restful, either.

“Howard’s a good egg, after his fashion. But he’s got what you might call a low breaking-point. And he’s had to stand all the things a stuffed shirt can’t stand. Disorder, confusion, crazy extravagances, crazy quarrels with the neighbors. One time when they were having a dinner-party, all the oyster forks had disappeared, at the last moment. He was absolutely sunk.”

“I can’t think that’s very tragic,” said Tilly.

“It was—for him. It was a humiliation he never got over, to see their guests eating oysters with big forks.”

While all teenagers say they hate their parents, Sybil’s son Taylor, fresh from a school for disturbed children, really seems to mean it. Their neighbor, emotionally unstable divorcee Carola Dexter, claims that Sybil was her best friend and often complained to her about Tilly’s grasping ways. But would a best friend try to steal Carola’s boyfriend Dick Cantrell, as rumor suggests? Maybe a best friend who thought Carola was after her own husband. Soon Tilly’s head is swimming from all the unasked-for gossip her fellow suspects insist on sharing.

Tilly’s lifestyle is an old-fashioned one that is likely to irritate many readers. Why doesn’t she get a job instead of becoming a professional houseguest? Her late husband Ian’s modest life insurance is due to run out very soon. This worries Tilly, yet she has no plan in place. As Tilly herself reminds us, though, not everyone is capable of rising to meet extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are very ordinary indeed, muddling along as best we can and making plenty of mistakes along the way.

Me? I’m nobody. Nothing. I’ve never had a job or earned a penny in my life. I’m not able to support my own child. I’m not a really good housekeeper or cook, I can’t sew. I’ve got friends, and I love them, girls I went to school with, but they’re not important, dazzling people. Just dear and nice. I’ve had beaus, the average number, but never anyone like Ian. Never anyone with such charm and wit; never anyone so handsome and debonair. Only that little, little time together—and now I haven’t anything. I’m nobody.

No! That’s disgusting. That’s shocking. I am somebody. I’m Robert’s mother, and I was Ian’s wife, and I made him happy. I made my parents happy. I’m not mean or cruel or dishonest, and I’m not stupid.

A strong, intrepid heroine is always appreciated, but most people are not strong or intrepid. Tilly certainly is not. She is, however, a good person who has never hurt anyone and doesn’t deserve the ordeal she’s going through.

There’s still no excuse for Sam Osborne, though. That’s an ordeal she brought upon herself.

Widow’s Mite is less a mystery than a series of random events. The ending is one of those solutions that seems to happen simply because the author feels the book has gone on long enough and she had better put a stop to it. The novel is otherwise well-paced, with a nicely understated sense of humor. It’s adequate light entertainment. To experience Elisabeth Sanxay Holding at the height of her powers, however, check out The Blank Wall or The Innocent Mrs. Duff instead. Widow’s Mite is too meager a portion.

Availability

Widow’s Mite is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House as part of a double volume with Who’s Afraid.