The Innocent Mrs. Duff by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1946)

Wealthy, middle-aged businessman Jacob Duff can’t understand why his much younger Reggie continues to do things that irritate him. Her innocent nature, her willingness to please—it’s all just too much for him, driving him to seek comfort in a cocktail or two. Cocktails soon become swills from stashed bottles as Duff’s grievances accumulate into a fantasy of despair and distrust. Rage turns to action, which spirals out of control, resulting in murder.

Until I read this book I had never heard of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget her, or her remarkable writing. Holdings style is dark, somber, and cynical—a combination that I would usually veer away from. And there were times when I found that I had to put the book down, not because it was terrible or boring, far from it! I found I needed a break from the dark intensity of the mood, as well as the warped thoughts and actions of the protagonist. But still, it kept me turning pages until long past my bedtime. 

This is not a murder mystery, actually there is no mystery to be found. This is gripping psychological suspense in which Holding tells a complex story of a man’s denial to face the truth of his actions, leading to the disintegration of his life by his own hand. 

Holding tells the story through the eyes of Jacob Duff, a rich man dissatisfied with life, and a functioning alcoholic. One should feel some sympathy for this individual as he is tormented by his thoughts. Is his wife being unfaithful? Is she turning his son and beloved (rich) aunt against him? How will he stand being disgraced? But Holding writes the character, and especially his dialogue with himself, so well that you soon see him for the self-involved, self-deluded bastard that he is. 

“I used to be happy he thought. But now I never am. I used to feel well and happy. Used to like going fishing, used to enjoy swimming. But now I don’t enjoy anything. Not with Reggie around.”

There’s a sustained sense of dread throughout. From the very beginning you know, you just know, that awful things are going to happen. Duff’s confused and self-indulgent view lead him to attempts at setting up his wife for adultery, with unforeseen consequences. There are murders, but they felt like mere blips, part of the fuel that feeds Duff’s growing delusions, his consuming need for alcohol, and his spiral out of control. Everything converges to an ending that—well it’s one that while you’ll see it coming, you won’t be able to look away from it.

Not for the faint of heart, but very much recommended.

My Judgment – 4.25/5

Prior Rulings – Curtis @ The Passing Tramp

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one book outside your comfort zone

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