John Buell | Crest Books | 1959 | 128 pages
Warning! The last few pages of this book are entitled: The Secret of the Pyx. DO NOT—DO NOT READ THIS SECTION UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. – from the back cover
After a cab driver witnesses a young woman in a white evening gown fatally plummet to the ground from the penthouse balcony of an eleven story apartment building, Detective Henderson works to uncover the details of her death. The ethereal white trail tracing the path of Elizabeth Lucy’s death is the central haunting image in this slim novel, told in alternating point-of-view chapters. In the present, Henderson tracks the clues leading back to the possible murder, as Elizabeth, in the past, lives out her fateful last few days.
Elizabeth, a small-town runaway working as a call girl out of a rundown boarding house, falls under the eye of a powerful, mysterious client. As her sense of fatalism surrounding their upcoming “date” grows, she seeks solace in whatever private moments she can afford, sharing a small space away from her trade with her only real friend, Jimmy, a troubled—and through implication, closeted gay–youth seeking his own sense of escape. Elizabeth also bears a burden of responsibility toward her former roommate, another call girl who suffered a complete mental breakdown, and now lives in a near-catatonic state in an asylum.
Back in the present, Henderson begins to exhibit a fascination with the deceased that echoes that of Dana Andrews’ detective in Otto Preminger’s Laura. Small details in the case cause his suspicions of murder to grow, with more deaths soon occurring in Elizabeth’s circle of acquaintances. Through all, Elizabeth emerges as a melancholy and expressly empathetic character. Minus the dictionary definition preface pointing to the supernatural, The Pyx could function simply as a melodrama on the dangers of juvenile delinquency, right up to the occult-tinged conclusion.
Since readers are aware of Elizabeth’s fate from the first few pages, the only suspense derives from uncovering the circumstances ultimately leading her to the penthouse. Her arrival is unexpectedly anticlimactic in its brevity, with her trip over the balcony railing coming at a surprising speed. Only a few final details, suggesting the monstrous undercurrent of the proceedings, reveal the true nature of her death.
However, a howlingly bad postscript, The Secret of the Pyx, explains everything in a pseudo-educational report—which could easily be imagined unspooling on grainy film stock in a fifties-era classroom–on the history of demonic possession and the black masses.