Pomegranate Seed by Edith Wharton, 1931
The magic trick:
Writing a first-rate mystery-suspense story but leaving room for it to double as a memorable character study at the same time
If you didn’t know better you might mistake “Pomegranate Seed” for a Sherlock Holmes story – specifically “The Five Orange Pips” or “The Adventure Of The Dancing Men.” Consider: a widower gets a strange letter in the mail every few weeks. They start arriving just after he and his new wife get home from their honeymoon. Every time he sees them his face twists in some kind of mix of horror, shock, and disbelief, and he withdraws alone to the library.
Had it been a Sherlock Holmes story, it is at this point that the terrified new wife arrives at Baker Street to tell her mysterious tale and plead for help from the famous detective. But because this is an Edith Wharton story instead, the plot advances into different territory. There is no visit to Sherlock. The wife instead seeks assistance from her husband’s mother, who, we can safely say, is far less effective than Sherlock would have been.
Wharton maintains the mystery throughout the story, and her ability to ratchet up the suspense is impressive. She also keeps the focus on the husband-wife relationship, and the mental anguish faced by the wife, who desperately tries to curb her own insecurities.
The story becomes as much a portrait of a desperate, lonely woman as it is a spine-tingling mystery. But of course it is both at once – a double feature not even Sherlock could manage. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.
Though she had been sure from the first that the handwriting on the gray envelope was a woman’s, it was long before she associated the mysterious letters with any sentimental secret. She was too sure of her husband’s love, too confident of filling his life, for such an idea to occur to her.