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The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Holding The Blank Wall.jpgThe Blank Wall is a 1947 crime novel that's been adapted to film twice: once as a film noir called The Reckless Moment (1950) and the other a contemporary thriller (that is, set in the present day of 2001) called The Deep End. The basic scenario in all three versions of the story is a suburban mother trying to hold the family together while her husband is away at war. Her underage daughter becomes enamored of a sleazy crook who wants to blackmail her, and the mother is sucked into a criminal underworld that is completely outside her mundane experience as a home-maker. (In The Deep End, the gender of the child who is imperiled is changed from female to male, and the son is gay.) I don't believe it's a major spoiler to say that the sleazebag is accidentally murdered, and the mother gets involved in covering up the murder only to have another blackmailer show up with letters her daughter wrote to her exploiter/boyfriend, which he threatens to send to the newspapers unless the mother pays him five thousand dollars.

The novel is very much a melodrama, in the sense that it's about a woman unhappily trapped in a social role that doesn't fit her. Lucia is deeply insecure and very bad at being a housekeeper and mother. She writes letters to her husband that are complete torture to her, because they are so inane and disconnected from the turmoil she's going through, which she feels she must hide from him. Her daughter and son are both spoiled brats who torment her with their back talk and disobedience and contempt, and she is helpless to do anything about it. In fact, she's so helpless in general that I had a hard time maintaining my sympathy for her. The novel was initially serialized in Women's Home Journal, and it seems aimed at women who are bored with their domestic lives and maybe wishing for some excitement or adventure. The woes of the protagonist probably appealed pretty directly to the experience of the women who read the magazine.

As a crime story it's unusual for focusing on domestic issues like motherhood, the limits on women's power to run their own lives, and suburban gentility and pretense. Poor Lucia has to run around town trying to deal with grocery shopping during war time rationing, trying to get her refrigerator fixed when the repair company is already overbooked, trying to borrow money to pay the blackmail when she has no collateral to offer, and generally having no idea how to deal with the problems she's facing without her exposing her whole family to shame and criminal charges. The other unusual thing about The Blank Wall is that the second blackmailer she meets is a gentle man named Donnelly who gradually falls in love with her. In the film noir version, directed by the great Max Ophuls in his brief Hollywood sojourn, it's implied that maybe the feeling is mutual and maybe it goes further than just feelings. The book is very clear that, despite the fact that she does have feelings for him, nothing happens between Lucia and Donnelly, but Lucia agonizes over the appearance that something has happened between them, which is constantly thrown in her face by her horrible children. The 1950 film also implies that the daughter did more than write letters to her sleazy boyfriend, whereas the book again maintains her innocence of sexual involvement.

The unusual setting and stakes is what sets this book apart from most crime novels, although the focus on romance aligns it with the other three novels in the Library of America series of mid-century crime novels by women. The thing that really made the book stand out for me, however, is the character of Sybil, the black woman who helps Lucia run the household. It's interesting to me that Sybil is missing from both film adaptations, because she is absolutely key to the novel. Basically, she's the person who makes sure that the house is run properly, handling everything that Lucia is incompetent to do, and she makes sure Lucia stays out of trouble with both the criminals and the law, interceding whenever Lucia starts losing her grip. Lucia depends on her entirely, and there comes a point when Sybil tells her the story of her husband, who has been in prison for something like twelve years for hitting a white man who hit him first. Through Sybil, who is portrayed very vividly through Lucia's eyes, we get a vivid portrait of the husband, who is an idealist who still believes justice can prevail despite the cruel injustice perpetrated on him by Jim Crow America. It's an utterly fascinating burst of raw social realism in the midst of an oddball romantic crime story. The best part of the story, for me, was the unexpected portrayal of the deepening friendship, even partnership, between Lucia and Sybil. Sybil is Lucia's true better half, not the absent husband. It's not clear to me whether Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was expecting us to see these two women as the real domestic partners of the story, but that's how it came across to me. It makes The Blank Wall feel at least obliquely radical for its time.

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