Friday, 9 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Speak of the Devil

I've written more than once on this blog about the excellence of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a pioneering American author of domestic suspense. Long before Patricia Highsmith came on the scene, Holding was producing unorthodox and compelling studies of criminal psychology which deserve to be better-known. A case in point is Speak of the Devil, first published in 1941, and expanded from a novella called Fearful Night.

The protagonist is Karen Peterson, a tall and attractive young woman, who is (and remains throughout the book) rather mysterious. She's very different in some ways from my own character Rachel Savernake, and yet there are one or two points of comparison that I noticed with interest. Karen is sailing for Havana when she is urged to take a job in a hotel by a man called Fernandez who has wants to marry. She decides, on the spur of the moment, and against her better judgement, to accept the offer of job, but not the offer of marriage .

The hotel is on the island of Riquezas, and given that Holding lived for some years on Bermuda, I wondered (without finding out the answer) whether to some extent the setting was based on Bermuda. Soon, a young woman called Cecily claims to have killed a man who was about to attack her. A body is found, but Miss Peterson doesn't think that Cecily is a killer. She starts to play the amateur sleuth, and encounters a sympathetic detective.

For a long time, I was unsure where this story was going. The cast of characters is small, and I was not clear how Holding was going to resolve the situation that she had created. But in a sequence of unpredictable (but not unreasonable) plot developments, she reminds us that, in a crime novel, nothing is what it seems. I found it all quite gripping, and another good example of Holding's quiet literary accomplishment.

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