The Novels of C. Hugh Holman

By White, Ray Lewis | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1986 | Go to article overview

The Novels of C. Hugh Holman

White, Ray Lewis, The Southern Literary Journal

   The streamlined Diesel engine rounded the curve and emitted the hoarse,    frog-like sound that has replaced the clear loneliness of the steam    locomotive's whistle. The orange, black and yellow length of the engine    throbbed between tree-shaded streets, gradually slackening its pace until    it gently came to rest before a smoky red brick depot. 

Thus began in 1942 the literary career of a young college teacher who was to become an honored authority in his academic field and a leading educator of his era. Unpromising as the passage might seem, the words opened Death Like Thunder, the first of six detective novels that would appear over the next decade, books that would help to support the man and his family in his first college teaching and in his work toward a doctoral degree and membership on the faculty of a prestigious Southern university. General students in literature classes would come to hear of C. Hugh Holman (1914-81) and to depend on his Handbook to Literature; and scholarly students of the writings of Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Ellen Glasgow, William Gilmore Simms, and other American authors would repeatedly come upon the distinguished literary history and criticism that Hugh Holman published throughout an exemplary teaching and administrative career. But few of these students and scholars would know that early in his life Hugh Holman created a body of detective fiction worthy of attention for its qualities of time and place as well as its authorship.

The train that arrives to open Death Like Thunder has reached the fictitious setting of Abeton, South Carolina, seat of Hart County and in 1942 a town of five thousand citizens who swelter in the humid heat of a Southern afternoon in September. Abeton has a cotton mill, a boarding house, a telegraph office, a jail, a tavern, several lawyers' offices, and the Abeton Cafe; but the action of Death Like Thunder centers around two other Abeton institutions--Abeton College and the Hart County courthouse. The college, consisting of "red brick buildings with Corinthian columns," is dominated by the three-story administration building ("the one with the tall steeple") and the gracious home of the college president--"a huge old house [set] back among giant live oaks and raising its green-shingled, Victorian third storey above their gnarled limbs." The dingy courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse is the realm of law and justice for the people of Hart County--"a sorry stage on which to play a drama of life and death, a pitifully commonplace conclusion to the spectacular and gaudy act of murder."

Despite the perfunctory warning affixed to Death Like Thunder that "names and designations of characters and institutions are entirely fictitious, and any similarity to persons or institutions now existing is entirely coincidental," Hugh Holman clearly modeled Abeton, South Carolina, on the town of Clinton, in Laurens County, in the Piedmont area of northwestern South Carolina, where he had lived since the early 1930's. And Abeton College--"a denominational liberal arts college" for men--is clearly modeled on Presbyterian College in Clinton, which Holman attended to receive the Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1936 and the Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1938 and where he remained after graduation to serve as Director of Public Relations to 1939, Director of Radio to 1941, and Instructor in English, beginning in 1941. In creating the plot for Death Like Thunder, Holman drew upon knowledge gained from two of his Presbyterian College positions--Director of Radio and Instructor in English--for the crime that shakes Abeton College involves a radio scriptwriter accused of murdering a college faculty member.

The hero of Death Like Thunder, Michael Leiter of New York City, "a young man, somewhere in his middle twenties, dressed in tan trousers, a loud checked brown sports coat, and a shirt and tie that matched perfectly," having lost the authorship of "Cry Murder," a nationally broadcast radio detective show, has reluctantly arrived at Abeton College to establish a radio department and to produce public-service radio programming for stations to broadcast throughout South Carolina. …

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