Thursday, August 08, 2019

52. Miasma by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

It's an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding double rock block!  The main reason I went back to back is that they are in the same physical book (part of the way Stark house has done their reprints) and my on-deck shelf is so full that I am stacking books on top so I have to make room.  Also, though, the first one was just so much fun I thought I would keep going.  I was not disappointed.

First of all, she is just such a good writer.  In the first 3 or 4 pages, you get the entire set-up and the stage is set for suspense.  Alex Dennison is a young man right out of medical school hoping to start his practice in a small town.  He has a young fiancee back home that he hopes to marry when he has established himself.  There is pressure there, as her family is well-to-do.  He is a dour, Calvinist from a poor background with a grim outlook on life, but hard-working and honest.  He struggles to get patients and is soon desperate enough to try to get a job on a passenger ship (which does not please his fiancee) when he receives an offer out of the blue from the more established town doctor. It is an offer that seems almost too good to be true.  Dr. Leatherby is urbane, accommodating and supportive.  His  house is beautiful, dripping with class.  He has too many patients and wants Alex to be his assistant at an excellent wage, room & board, including a beautiful nurse.   The offer is a godsend, but Dennison is reluctant as he wants to go on his own.  However, the pressure of his fiancee is always there:
Then, as was natural, his thoughts drifted toward Evelyn.  He took a little snapshot out of his pocket, and looked at it. Such a pretty little face, such a gay and innocent smile! She looked at him out of the picture, as she looked at him in life, making unconscious enormous demands upon him, upon his patience, his energy, asking of him protection against the brutalities of life.  Very well, he meant to meet her demands; he meant to take care of her.  He would save his money, and secure a home for her, where, behind frilled curtains, her innocence and gaiety would be safe.
As it turns out, Evelyn has a bit more mettle than Dennison perceives.  Sanxay Holding beautifully nails his perception of her and the anxieties her potential creates in him.  I love the direct exposure of his psychological punctuated by that perfect little image of suburban properness and safety, the closed frilled curtains.  So good!

And soon things start to happen that confirm Dennison's reluctance.  The sunshiney nurse tells him that he should leave.  Dr. Leatherby's sister does the same, though both seem to like him.  Dr. Leatherby has private appointments with patients at odd hours, one who dies in his sleep the following night and bequeathes 100k on the good doctor.  Dennison's strong sense of right and wrong won't allow him to continue the job without finding out what is going on.

In many ways, the setup here is very similar to Lady Killer (written 20 years later).  An inexperienced protagonist out of their element is the only who finds something wrong is going on.  In Lady Killer, she is on a passenger ship for the first time, out of her depth with the educated classes and a woman. Here, though a man, he also lacks the class and upbringing of the others around him.  In both cases, they are headstrong.  Their determination is commendable and makes them likable but they also are not very smart or subtle about how they go about trying to figure the situation out.  Things get messy.

Miasma was not a total home run.  The ending got a bit convoluted and then required a lot of explanation to clear everything up.  Getting there was a lot of fun, like an excellent old-time radio play with much more depth and nuance than you could fit into a half-hour.

I leave with you another great line, when Dr. Leatherby's chauffeur is first introduced:  "They found Ames in the garage; a very self-possessed young man, with the independent air of one who can always find a job."

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