The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1947)
Lucia Holley is living day by day, each day hoping not to get word that her husband Tom is dead. Tom has been gone for two years, assigned on a navy destroyer. The uncertainty of whether she is a widow or a wife combines with the frustration of trying to be a perfect homemaker and mother during a time of uncertainty, deep rationing, and erratic services from the tradesmen and shops she is used to dealing with. She is living in a rented lake house with her widowed father, her seventeen-year-old daughter, her fifteen-year-old son, and Sybil, her housekeeper.
The persona Lucia shows her family -- that of a capable, unflustered woman running the household --is at odds with the real Lucia -- a frightened, insecure, and dependent person who lives only for her family and who would be lost without the capable guidance of her housekeeper. Nonetheless, life is pretty good. Her daughter Bee is happy attending an art school; her son David is smart and makes friends easily (although he does see himself as the man of the house while his father is away), her father is comfortable and enjoying his life; Sybil, the housekeeper, is her faithful ally, quietly solving as many of Lucia's domestic problems as possible. Since this is a mystery, something soon happens that threatens Lucia's family and their sheltered life.,
That "something" was a con man and former pornographer named Ted Darby, whose latest mark is Lucia's daughter Bee. To Bee, Darby was a romantic iconoclast who represented freedom and an escape from her boring life. Darby was a secret Bee tried to keep from her mother, sure that Lucia "just wouldn't understand." Lucia does find out and goes to confront Darby, a man eighteen years older than her daughter. Darby refuses to stop seeing Bee and -- since Bee would soon be eighteen -- tells Lucia that there is nothing she can do to stop the relationship.
Lucia does what she could, grounding her daughter. Bee then secretly calls Darby and asks him to meet her that night at the lake house's boathouse. Lucia notices a light moving in the boathouse and discovers Darby, who refuses to leave. Lucia's father then goes to confront the unwelcome intruder and ends pushing him into the water and walking away.
The next morning Lucia rises early and goes to the boathouse to get ready for a swim. She finds Darby's body floating in the water. When Lucia's father had pushed him, Darby had hit his head against an anchor. If her father discovers what had happened, he would take full responsibility and perhaps be charged with a crime. If her daughter discovers what had happened, she would never get over it. Lucia, the only one who knows what happened, is also the only one who can avoid disaster for her family. She finds the courage to disengage Darby's impaled body from the anchor and manages to load it into a motor boat. She dumps the body in a marshy and desolate inlet and hopes she will be able to forget the horror of what happened.
A rude and unseemly man arrives at the house demanding to see Bee. Afraid he might be a policeman, Lucia refuses to let him see her daughter. The body is discovered and the police begin looking for a murderer. The body is soon identified and Darby's past is revealed. Bee becomes disgusted with the way she acted with Darby and prays no one discovers her infatuation with him. Another man -- handsome, quiet, polite -- arrives to tell Lucia he and his partner (the rude person who had arrived earlier) has a bundle of letters that Bee had written to Darby and that they were for sale for $10,000. The letters were innocent enough on the surface, but Bee's romanticism made them seem far less innocent. Speaking of innocent, an innocent man is soon charged with Darby's murder.
Lucia's house of cards is threatened. One thing can be traced to another and Lucia's entire family could be ruined. Lucia has to find a way to deal with the blackmailers or to come up with an amount she just does not have. She also must find a way to clear a complete stranger from the murder charge. Then there's another death. And a very perceptive police detective...
In The Blank Wall, Holding gives us a dead-on psychological portrait of middle-class and middle-aged crises. This is quiet suspense at it's best, told in a gripping and homely tone. If you like Margaret Millar or Charlotte Armstrong, give this one a try.