The Library of America has done some great collections of American Noir in the last several years, but I really had to sit up and take notice when they released the two-volume set of Women Crime Writers of the 1940’s and 1950’s. The second book from the collection of four novels from the 1940’s was The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis (winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947) and boy was it a doozy. Set in small women’s college in New England, the brutal murder of a popular and handsome professor has everyone up in arms. It isn’t long before a distraught freshman student breaks down and confesses to the crime, but did she really do it? While the Dean tries to mitigate the damage done to the reputation of the school, a young up and coming reporter tries to find answers and more than a few spicy headlines. Soon a fellow student gets involved with the reporter and the case and the red herrings pile one on top of the other.
There’s plenty of insider snarkiness about collegiate life of the time. But what sets this novel apart from others of its day is how the relatively new science of psychology plays such a big part in solving the murder and also provides a lens through which the college experience is viewed. It seems tame and more than a little dated at times, but this must have been quite the experience when it was published.
****After reading the novel, I came across Ms. Eustis’ obituary from earlier this year (she died at 98 on January 11) and learned that as well writing two novels and several short stories, she went on to translate novels by Georges Simenon, among others. Who knew?****