A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pandora By Holly Hollander’

Gene Wolfe’s second novel of 1990 was probably the least characteristic book he has ever written, if that can be said of a writer with the chameleon-like quality of changing style and subject so frequently. On the surface, Pandora, By Holly Hollander appears to be what we would now call a YA story, a murder mystery related by a bright, bubbly seventeen year old girl. The title, invoking Pandora’s Box – a key element in the murder – hints that underneath the Illinois mainstream of the setting is a world of mystery, fantasy and confusion.
But what’s on the surface is all that this book contains. Even though the ‘detective’ in the story is, highly implausibly, named Aladdin Blue, Wolfe produces no genies. Blue, and Pandora are false trails, or they are trails so obscure and subtle that no-one in nearly thirty years had discovered a hint of where they lead.
What Pandora is about is a gentle spoof of Nancy Drew, in the voice of a teenage girl (carried off, for the most part successfully), who assists the ‘detective’ to solve a violent and brutal crime. Holly is chatty, bright but unfocussed, and plays a large part in exposing the real killer, at her own expense, though this latter aspect is something that is largely overshadowed by Holly’s relentless cheerfulness.
Holly is the only child of Harry and Elaine, the latter a very attractive woman much younger than her husband, the Chief Executive of a very successful locksmiths business in Barton, 65 miles from Chicago (though Harry is a 48% minority shareholder who runs the company in trust for his older brother Bert, who is in an asylum after killing his wife). As chairwoman of the local Social Committee for this year’s fair, Elaine has procured a Pandora’s Box, a locked, antique box with something in it, for raffling off. The box will be publicly opened by Vietnam vet and locksmith, Larry Lief, brother to Holly’s best friend, Megan, and lover to Elaine.
The ceremony is marred when a bomb goes off, killing Larry and a couple of innocent bystanders, injuring hundreds, including Holly, who is left on crutches for the rest of the story, just as Aladdin Blue walks with a cane (characteristically, the majority of Wolfe’s heroes wind up lame, a thematic note echoing Wolfe’s own limp from a childhood brush with polio). Uncle Bert, who’s already escaped) is found shot outside the hospital where she’s been taken, the following day.
The Police connect the deaths of Larry and Uncle Bert and come up with a strong case pointing the finger at Holly’s Dad. Blue persuades a second person to confess, setting out an equally strong and convincing explanation, but this is a blind to tempt the real culprit out into the open to claim to have additional information turning the crime back onto Harry Hollander. The real killer, if we can be certain of that, given our residual suspicion that Wolfe has at least another three arms up his sleeve, is Elaine, plotting too get her hands on the Hollander fortune.
The outcome is that, as soon as Holly is fit, she moves out to go live with Blue, his two housemates Muddy and Tick, at a dilapidated old house way out in the woods, where everyone lives in poverty. Elaine faces trial, Harry’s left Illinois and is dating an even younger woman, only a couple of years older than Holly, and can’t even remember Holly’s birthday. Meanwhile, her friendship with Megan has been broken, Larry’s wife Molly has lost her husband, in two ways, and even Blue has let down a woman, an ex-girlfriend who wants him back but in whom he’s not interested.
That’s what I mean about the personal cost to Holly that her manner draws a blanket over. I mean, there’s not a lot nice happens to women in this book. There’s even a breach with Holly’s other best friend, Les, with whom she goes to live for a time before coming to Blue’s: Les is a shadowy figure, never given a description, not allowed a line, even in the one scene where she’s present in the flesh and indeed only once referred to as a girl.
Now Holly is seventeen, a teenage girl who would normally be in something of a hormonal state. She’s not unattractive, but she doesn’t have a boyfriend, doesn’t seem to be interested in a boyfriend, has no sexual thoughts except for the odd ‘swooniness’ about remote male figures on TV but is a constant commentator about other women’s bodies, especially her own mother, who has ‘creamy big ones’.
Except that Holly never describes Les, which can be short for Leslie (male), or Lesley (female) but can also be short for Lesbian.
So I’m beginning to wonder at how all these pieces seem to point in one particular direction, and how Gene Wolfe is a writer who buries things with very oblique pointers and leaves us to ferret them out ourselves.
Then there’s the structure of the story. Other critics have set the events of the book in the early Eighties, though it wasn’t published until 1990. Holly herself, in her foreword, claims that this is not a historical story (now, why would she say that?) though it has taken a year to get published, and she’s had to have the help of a professional writer to lick it into shape, which immediately places Wolfe in the same position of ‘translator’ as he has been for ‘The Book of the New Sun’ and the ‘Soldier’ books.
That imposes a degree of artificiality on what Holly is saying and doing. Her youth and general naivete makes her the traditional Wolfean Unreliable Narrator to begin with, but to know that what we’re reading has been reshaped by Wolfe himself casts doubt on everything.
After that, how can we see Aladdin Blue – that name is so off – as anything but Wolfe himself? After all, he provides the answers, in a comprehensive manner that typifies the Wolfean Analytical Man, who will recur, over and over, forging theories from disparate and seemingly disconnected facts.
And Blue has two live-in friends whose presence is simply presented, with no explanation of how they come to know him or to be pat of his menage, neither do they play any part in the story. Nor do they have real names either. Now presumably they do have names, John Hancocks, but to us they are Muddy and Tick. Muddy cooks, procures food, smokes dope. Tick is fat but doesn’t eat much.
Once again there is this sense that Wolfe is providing us with something symbolic that we’re just not seeing. Or is it all a giant sham? Are we being teased into looking for something on another level that really isn’t there, in a book that really is what it seems, when all the writer is doing is to create a colossal spoof on us?
I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Finally, and this is probably another aspect of the joke, Pandora By Holly Hollander reads like the first book in a series that never existed. It introduces the characters, it creates a set-up, it is the left hand book on a ghost shelf of Holly Hollander Mystery Books, Starring Aladdin Blue. And it’s a one-off that was never intended to be more than this one story.
People don’t tend to take much notice of Pandora By Holly Hollander. Maybe they should start to look into it a lot deeper.


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