I’ve always had an interest in rediscovering old mysteries. I love seeing how the stories are constructed and the characters fleshed out, and comparing the authors’ techniques to the contemporary writers I read. I love finding new (to me) words and phrasings—meaching, roistering. Most of all, though, I delight in finding the cultural and historical threads that connect my own time to the period of the old books—political jokes that haven’t changed, societal expectations that have.
My latest discovery is The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis. Originally published in 1946, it has been republished in Sarah Weinman’s excellent two-volume collection of novels by women crime writers of the ’40s and ’50s. The Horizontal Man takes place at a fictional women’s college in the Berkshires, and in many ways echoes the cozy, village-set mysteries of Agatha Christie. Set in autumn, when the leaves have strayed from the trees, the small college town is exposed to Eustis’s crisp, satirical delineations. The murder of a handsome, sexually attractive English professor brings to the fore the neuroses, pretensions, snobbery, and jealousies that flourish in a quaint, academic environment. Helen Eustis, too, knew that environment well: She married her English professor when she was a student at Smith College.
Plus ça change . . . Eustis could be describing any English department functioning today. Her character studies, especially of the minds of the insecure professors grappling for position, are so spot on, you feel you’ve met these people before. She pokes a little fun at them, but they aren’t so overdrawn as to become caricatures. The Horizontal Man manages to be a smart mystery that expects its readers to be as smart as its characters.
What is out of date? Well, for one, the psycho-babble is risible now—but that was our understanding of the human mind at the time the novel was written. The unmarried professors live in boarding houses, the students’ dorms have house mothers. To me this is all part of the fun of discovering what the day-to-day life of a college community was like in the forties.
Helen Eustis was not a prolific writer. In fact, The Horizontal Man was her only novel, but it was critically acclaimed at the time and it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. In addition to a collection of short stories, The Captain and the Kings Depart and Other Stories (1943), she wrote for the New Yorker and other periodicals and translated George Simenon into English.
Sarah Weinman in her anthology is saving Helen Eustis and the other women crime writers she included—Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, to name a few—from drifting into obscurity. And their novels are worthy of our attention and study for their craft, their engaging suspense, and the way they weave in a woman’s perspective from an era on the cusp of revolutionary societal changes.