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The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis

eustis1.jpgThis is the second novel in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and '50s. I reviewed Vera Caspary's Laura previously.

I had never heard of Helen Eustis before. She apparently wrote only two novels and enough short stories for a collection. Her second novel, The Fool Killer, which was adapted as a film, also sounds fascinating: a boy’s adventures wandering the Midwest with an amnesiac veteran shortly after the Civil War. The Horizontal Man was published in 1946 and won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947. It's a very eccentric, ambitious murder mystery that starts out with the brutal murder of a professor of English at a small college near the Berkshires. (Eustis got her bachelors degree at Smith.) We then get a tour through the heads of a number of characters, many of whom are mentally or emotionally imbalanced and one of whom turns out to be the killer.

The novel is called a satire of liberal arts colleges, and certainly it comically mocks the types of people found on such a campus. But what most struck me was the psychological derangement of some of the central characters. In his appreciation of the novel, Charles Finch, calls it a novel of hysteria, and indeed it's almost Lovecraftian in the way that characters seem to be always on the verge of going completely mad and losing all touch with reality. Here's a passage that illustrates the tone I'm trying to describe:

And the snow, the delicate fragile snow, lying crystal on crystal like a thousand thousand lovers in a common bed, and the blue blue sky, blue as a steam whistle or a loud blast on a brass trumpet. He was strung and humming stripped like catgut, over bridge and around key. He shook and vibrated in response to the breath of the universe like the tautest violin string.

There are at least three characters who have basically lost their minds, and I actually got a little impatient with their inability to maintain a grip. Therefore, the most fascinating character by far was the splendidly-named Freda Cramm, who is a forceful ramrod of a woman who is beholden to no one, completely self-assured to the point of arrogance, seductive, fleshy, imperious, and really altogether unlike any other fictional character I can think of. In my review of Laura I said I couldn't detect the free love sexuality that Vera Caspary practiced and apparently felt was embodied in the character of Laura, but sex is all over the place in The Horizontal Man. Freda is a woman of voracious sexual appetite, the murdered professor at least likes to brag of his many sexual conquests, whether they were real or not, and two other characters have (off-stage) sex during the course of the novel.

Between the multiple points of view from multiple unreliable narrators and the raging sexual energy running through the story, it feels very modernistic. Eustis started working on a PhD in English Literature before she turned her hand to writing and translation, and while this is definitely a genre work, it feels very literary in its own peculiar way. Eustis perhaps announces her literary intent with an epigraph from Auden that gave the book its title (although I confess that I don't understand this little poem):

Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.

Of course, the title refers to the dead professor (reverse-fridging decades before the critical term "fridging" was even coined), and perhaps the poem is meditation on how we value the dead more than the living? Whatever the case, I thought this was a firecracker of a novel, and I recommend it highly. It reminded me of Laura in its multiple contesting points of view, and it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place (next up in the LOA omnibus) in its use of psychotic first person narrators.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2016 11:56 pm (UTC)
I get a better sense of the passage you quoted in your review than in the QOTD on Facebook. It sounds like an interesting novel.
Oct. 23rd, 2016 12:13 am (UTC)
Fridging? If that means what I think it does, it's a common characteristic of genre mystery novels. The victim in the conventional type of this story is not a human being, but serves the sole function of a plot point to kick off a puzzle. This is for a practical purpose, to prevent the reader from being distracted by sympathy for the victim. A novel featuring grieving over a death would be a different kind of a story, and that and a mystery-solving puzzle would get in each other's way. Dislike this convention if you prefer (I do, which is why I read few novels of this kind), but that's why it's there.
Oct. 23rd, 2016 04:14 pm (UTC)
You're right. I was trying to be clever, but I was missing the obvious. The term (from a website called Women in Regrigerators) apparently came out of comics fandom. Although I will say that both novels in the LOA omnibus that I've read so far portray considerable empathy for the murder victim, not all of it altruistic. David Bordwell says they are psychological thrillers more than typical murder mysteries, very much concerned with detecting the emotional state and relationships of the characters rather than just who done it.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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