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The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis
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The Horizontal Man (1946)

by Helen Eustis

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Another book I’m glad was collected in the Women Crime Writers set. I am not an expert, but this feels like the first or certainly one of the first crime novels that is more a connected series of character studies linked by a single death, than one linear narrative. There are so many ways to tell the story of a murder and these days crime fiction is more popular than ever. Eustis has a nice bit about it in a scene where Freda gets in Leonard’s face to make him tell what he knows about her and the dead man - “Personally, I think there are not enough murders. They feed us in some way. See how avidly we devour all accounts of crime, or detective stories! And after all, the responsibility of giving death is a small one which we regard so seriously in comparison to the responsibility of giving life, which we take so lightly.”

As meanderingly interesting as it is, a modern reader will work out the culprit ahead of anyone in the story and many will find Molly an exasperating figure; I certainly did. She’s such a pathetic ninny that it’s hard to read her sections. There is hardly any police involvement although their menace looms large for Molly whose confession is patently false. It falls to the good Dr. Forstmann to make sure she isn’t arrested and to find the real killer. Not that he does anything like serious detecting, he’s more a vehicle to show us various scenes in the suspects’ lives.

No, events in the book aren’t driven by the shrink, that falls to Jack and Kate who join in an uneasy alliance to find out what’s going on with teachers Freda, George and Leonard and which of them is guilty of killing Kevin Boyle. There are shenanigans and some vaguely insulting scenes where Jack bemoans the fact that Kate doesn’t get all dolled up all the time and might need to lose a few pounds. Also that she can’t be a lesbian because she isn’t flat chested. What?

Spoilers

Molly isn’t the only extreme character, George is a histrionic mama’s boy who is nearly insulting in his portrayal of the repressed homosexual. The scenes with the two of them are incredibly nutty. His sinister notebook is an interesting idea that must have been fresh in 1946, but for a modern reader the mysterious writer won’t be; it’s George himself, obviously. Eventually the Doctor works out that George has a dual personality and the writer is his other one; the hidden one. The woman. She was in love with Boyle and because she was trapped inside George’s body, that love would forever be unrequited. Better to kill him than suffer his affairs with real women. Again, the ideas here are not new, but are presented as highly deviant which can be insulting, but it’s fiction so I let it go. Not the best psychological thriller ever, but a good one. I can see why it shocked people when published. The ideas and tropes it uses have become part and parcel of the genre and so feels dated, but is written with lively language and things follow logically. Not a lot of silly coincidences or a pig pile of misery and mischance. ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | Aug 30, 2016 |
This unremembered gem was probably rather shocking in its day, although the twist is now rather commonplace. Set in an elite women's college, a sexy young professor has been murdered, the police are morons and amateur detectives abound. There's a pleasant little romance and a host of stock academic types in various states of incompetence. The novel has lost some of its punch over time, but it's good storytelling. ( )
  Bjace | Jul 20, 2013 |
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Epigraph
Let us honour if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
but the horizontal one

W. H. AUDEN
Dedication
To Jonah
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The firelight played over all the decent familiar objects of his everyday life; he viewed them desperately, looking for some symbol of succour.
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The novel is set in Hollymount College, an Eastern American girl's school. Several "private detectives," including a young newspaper reporter, a homely but witty student, and a beleaguered college president, become involved in the murder of handsome English professor Kevin Boyle. It is the staff psychologist who finally puts the pieces together.

Exclusive Hollymount College — never had an unpleasant incident tarnished the reputation of this venerable institution. When Kevin Boyle — English professor and unabashed womanizer — is found brutally murdered, the school's president is singularly reluctant to talk to the press. Not so Molly Morrison, a student who dramatically confesses her guilt — and her passion for the deceased. In a stunningly original showdown, Kate Innes, a spunky student with a thirst for the truth, exposes the dark shadows that lurk behind Hollymount's staid facade.

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