It was the first time she had encountered the full force of the world’s laissez-faire. People, by and large, weren’t cruel, weren’t heartless; it was simply that they couldn’t believe anything would happen. A shot in the night was a car back-firing; a cry for help was just somebody skylarking. —— lying on the floor with ashes over her face was only someone who had had too many drinks.
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was a New Yorker married to a British diplomat who spent her life travelling in South America and the Caribbean. She published 25 novels, most of which were mysteries.
In Lady Killer, her 11th title, we meet Honey Stapleton, the glamorous trophy wife of a wealthy man. She has married unwisely. Her husband Weaver is older, very high maintenance, a martyr to his various neuroses, a stickler for good form, and inclined to take things personally. Honey is feeling hemmed in and susceptible to falling for strangers. Holding had a flair for capturing personalities, an insight into human foibles, and captures Honey and Weaver perfectly.
The elevator stopped and she stepped out, with her gliding model’s walk, one foot almost straight before the other.
‘Sit down, Honey,’ said her husband. ‘I want to speak to them at the desk.’
She sat down on a sofa and looked after him as he crossed the lounge, very erect, in his very full overcoat. He sort of toddles, she thought. There he is, being so important, and it’s only about holding his mail.
The scene is a cruise ship sailing down the coast of the US. It is Honey’s first cruise, and she slightly disappointed by the ship, which is less sophisticated than the transatlantic vessels she has seen. By the end of her first day aboard, Honey has become obsessed by another couple on board, the Lashelles. Alma Lashelle is a successful entrepreneur who had built a small empire in cosmetics before meeting and marrying her husband, Hilary. Honey immediately spots that he is a bit of a lady’s man, and by chance she finds evidence of another woman in the picture. It soon becomes clear that Alma has suffered a number of misfortunes recently, which almost led to her missing the boat. Honey smells a rat.
When Alma’s mishaps continue – indeed worsen – Honey starts to believe that Lashelle is trying to get rid of his wife and scoop up her money, a belief which intensifies when another woman boards the ship. Mrs Condy fits the bill as his other woman.
The big girl looked up at her with a vague and wandering glance. She was wearing a grey linen dress, superbly tailored, but far from fresh, her abundant dark hair had a dusty look, her lipstick was smeared on with that same carelessness, red polish had been put on her nails anyhow, streaking her finger tips, the buckle of her broad grey suede belt was broken and mended with a scrap of black ribbon. Yet, careless and even slovenly as she was, she was handsome, and she had what Honey immediately conceded to be Class.
Honey wants to act, to save Alma, but is stymied by Alma’s refusal to see anything bad in her husband, and by the fact that nobody is prepared to believe her. Not her acquaintances on board, not the ship’s crew, and certainly not her husband Weaver.
I’ve got to do something about Alma, she thought. I’ve got to warn her, some way. But I know darn well that if I ever tried to say anything against her precious husband, I’d be out on my ear before I was half started. That’s what makes it so horrible, the way she adores him.
Honey soon finds herself pigeonholed as a nervous type, prone to imaginative outbursts and worse. Honey’s increasingly desperate attempts to be believed fall flat every time and as the ship travels south and enters more Latin waters, Honey’s environment gets edgier and she begins to believe that the guilty can get away with anything they like. But what can she do?
Holding plays a similar trick to the one which drives Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (aka The Lady Vanishes): young woman out of her depth in a slightly alien environment, knowing that something is terribly wrong but eventually being driven to question her own reliability.
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
This edition: Stark House Mystery Classics
Lady Killer first published 1942 by Duell, Sloan and Pearce
Miasma first published 1929 by E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc.
Source: My mate Nigel