Shall I pretend overwhelming grief at the death of a man whom I knew for two months? Shall I ignore the fact that for me his murder has become an invaluable social and professional asset? — Helen Eustis, The Horizontal Man 80.An amorous poet-professor is murdered in his lodgings and a slew of faculty members and students are the likely suspects in Helen Eustis's Edgar-winning The Horizontal Man (1946). Among the possible culprits are a sexually rapacious divorcee; a rabbitty, repressed English instructor; a literary lion with a nervous breakdown in his background; and a hysterical student with a crush on the victim. Engaging aspects of the novel include the hotbed of intrigue that is a college campus and the unlikely detective team of a smart, plump female student and a young male reporter with a line of snappy patter.
Although the modern reader may guess the perpetrator, the twist ending was unique when the book was published. The title comes from lines of Auden's: "Let us honour if we can/The vertical man/Though we value none/But the horizontal one" (see Collected Poems 2, 1927–1932).
Eustis (1916–2015) attended Smith College, which seems clear is the prototype for the college in the novel. Barry Werth (in The Scarlet Professor 125) discusses models of gay professor Newton Arvin and poet Alfred Fisher (Eustis's one-time husband; he had divorced food writer M.F.K. Fisher in 1938 before marrying her) that appear in The Horizontal Man. Eustis also published The Fool Killer (1954) and short stories (collected in The Captains and the Kings Depart, 1949, and she received an O. Henry Prize for "An American Home," 1947). She also translated Georges Simenon's When I Was Old and was a friend of Carson McCullers.
Below: Listen to an excerpt of The Horizontal Man read by Barbara Rosenblat.