THE OBSTINATE MURDERER (1938) and SPEAK OF THE DEVIL (1941) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Holding-Devil-and-Obstinate_StarkKousePressA belated Fedora welcome to 2015 after a fantastic Aussie sojourn. This year we open with a double bill from Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955) that has just been republished by Stark House Press. In both novels, their respective protagonists certainly have their work cut out for them: The Obstinate Murderer is a ‘country house’ style mystery about a spate of poisonings; while Speak of the Devil is set in a tropical island hotel where some say Old Nick himself walks the corridors!

I offer the following reviews as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme hosted today by BV Lawson at In Reference to Murder.

“There was nothing to do but wait, and to hope that the mad violence could find no crevice by which to enter, no weakness in this brave, new building, standing stark and alone by the sea.” – Speak of the Devil

It is not until we are about half-way through the book that we learn the first name of the heroine of Speak of the Devil, which is pretty fitting as Karen Peterson gives nothing away and proves to be a very hard nut to crack. She is on a cruise ship heading for Havana to start a new job, but gets a better offer from Fernandez, the rather too charming owner of a fancy new hotel on the island of Riquezas. She refuses to marry him, but accepts the position of hostess at the new establishment. She learns that she is a replacement for Cecily, another young American who was a bit too intense for the job but refuses to leave and has been demoted. Not long after the two women meet, Cecily says that she shot a man in Fernandez’ room, though the body proves elusive.

“Death in the house, mistress” he said. “Devil come to fetch he own.”

Holding_Speak-of-the-Devil_aceWhen a tropical storm hits, the natives claim that Satan is stalking the establishment, while Mrs Fish tells Karen that she is hunting the murderer of her husband, who in a photo proves to have a decidedly Satanic look. The locals are depicted in slightly stereotypical scaredy-cat fashion during the storm, though the chief of police chides Karen for imagining that there is no proper legal system in force, showing that Holding was aware of the pitfalls of caricature. The characterisation in fact is generally strong and often surprising here, providing some nice shading to what might otherwise have seemed like some rather stock characters. Karen is a very hardboiled dame but remains sympathetic while we discover many extra wrinkles to the rest of the cast. There are several murders before a rather nicely hidden villain emerges from the shadows and a highly dramatic finish that has plenty of suspense. All in all then what we have here is a pretty tasty mystery that, along with its busy plot, offers one of Holding’s typically tough and resourceful heroines, helping to elevate this excursion into tropical mayhem well above what you might expect. This is also true of The Obstinate Murderer, which once again offers a complicated plot to match some densely layered personalities.

“To meet up with a really subtle murderer, to study him, catch-up with him, step by step … There can’t be any other experience in life to equal a man-hunt.” – The Obstinate Murderer

A typical Agatha Christie scenario – a series of poisonings within a small village with suspicion falling on an illegitimate heir – is very nicely shaken up in The Obstinate Murderer. The somewhat reluctant amateur sleuth is Arthur Van Cleef, a wealthy and always impeccably turned out member of the upper crust so laid low by feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and general existential malaise that he has taken to the bottle. He is idolised by Russell Blackman, an obnoxious 18-year-old with a sharp mind and an unerring habit of making everyone hate him, who thinks it might be rather grand to be a detective. He also has a bit of a Nietzschean complex, which gives one passage an extra kick given that this book came out when Hitler was in the ascendancy in Europe:

“Superior men are becoming fewer, and they’ll have to become more ruthless”

Holding_Obstinate-Murderer_aceBlackman drives Van Cleef to his friend Emilia’s boarding house after she insists he come, claiming that she is being blackmailed by a young woman who recently arrived in the village. Could this have something to do with the strange death of her husband two years earlier? And why has the girl’s father been prowling around the house at night? There are several attempted poisonings, with death only averted thanks to Blackman’s ministrations, before a death occurs and Van Cleef is finally forced to act. There is a terrific scene in which he is himself poisoned but everyone believes that he is merely drunk. Only Blackman knows the truth and saves his life, but Van Cleef has to start facing the hard truth about how he has been wasting his existence.

Van Cleef and Blackman make for a fascinating double act – the former withdrawn and indolent, the latter truly insufferable and supercilious. In many ways these two feel like two halves of a Philo Vance style detective – Van Cleef has the aristocratic demeanour and impeccable manners while Blackman is ruled only by cold logic and is utterly infuriating. It is to Holding’s credit, as ever, that for all the clever circumlocutions of the plot, it’s the fleshing out of the characters that makes the book truly memorable. Curtis Evans reviewed the novel over at his blog, The Passing Tramp and rightly pointed to its homosexual subtext as one of its most fascinating characteristics. The world-weary Van Cleef, in particular, is a compellingly broken protagonist, one who would much rather climb into a bottle than investigate the poisonings that Blackman has clearly uncovered, but who still has a nagging sense that he should be doing more:

“I want to be left alone …” he thought irritably. “I can’t turn sleuth at this time of life.”

This fine edition comes with a brand new intro by Ed Gorman and also includes a very welcome checklist of not just all of Holding’s novels but also her extensive shorter fiction too (which included several stories published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy). This is another great double bill from Stark House Press, who supplied the review copy and for which many thanks – it’s a keeper.

Speak of the Devil / The Obstinate Murderer
By Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
ISBN: 978-1-933586-71-7 (paperback), 220 pages, $19.95

I submit these two reviews for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo – Speak of the Devil in the ‘out of the UK and US ’ category and The Obstinate Murderer in the ‘amateur detective’ tile:


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Friday's Forgotten Book, Stark House Press. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to THE OBSTINATE MURDERER (1938) and SPEAK OF THE DEVIL (1941) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

  1. Colin says:

    Firstly, welcome back!
    I only know the writer as the source of The Reckless Moment, which I have lying around somewhere, I think as another Stark House double. I really like the sound of Speak of the Devil (a terrific title) and am putting this on my list of books to look out for.

    • Thanks Colin – and it’s great to be back – well, it was also wonderful to be in Sydney oin 32 degree heat and to be surrounded by la famiglia, but we can’t be on hioliday forver (apparently). This is a great dpuble bill and a I really enjoyed them – yes, I think The Blank Wall remains her best-known title but she was a fine purveyor of suspense, clearly a precursor to Patricia Highsmith, though here the stories are couched in the form, more or less, of Golden Age whodunits.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    Welcome back !

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve only ever read her book “The Blank Wall” which I thought was excellent, but it seems she wasn’t a one-trick pony. Great that she’s being reprinted – I shall look out for these! 🙂

  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Welcome back! Glad you had an Aus-some holiday 🙂 > I’m always happy when I learn that some of those great vintage titles are being re-released. To me, that’s just great news. And there’s nothing like a country manor or one of those old hotels to set a fine murder context. Glad you thought these were good ‘uns.

  5. Welcome back Sergio! Excellent review, these sound very interesting… I have several of hers, but now want to find SPEAK OF THE DEVIL—great title!

  6. realthog says:

    I read The Obstinate Murderer a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed it. She has a really quite distinctive “voice”, doesn’t she? I must dig out Speak of the Devil. Many thanks for a pair of absorbing reviews.

    • Thanks chum – to me she really stands out from the crowd, as you say, very distinctive. it’s not all good as there are decided weirdnesses and weaknesses here too, but full of good things all the same.

  7. Bev Hankins says:

    Glad to have you back, Sergio! Excellent review–as always. You maker her sound good, but I’ve tried Holding and not yet decided if she’s quite my thing. There are two more of hers waiting on the TBR pile…we’ll have to see if I work her into my Bingo card this year.

  8. Richard says:

    Welcome back, nice to know you had a good trip

    I have a Elisabeth Sanxay Holding double, perhaps two of them, though not this one, sitting in the soon-to-be-moved-to-the-TBR-area, or what I call “Area B” as opposed to the much smaller, much sooner to be read “Area A”. I may have to move one of those doubles up, as the books sound quite good. Perhaps would make a nice shift after just finishing BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, one of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels (which, as opposed to the silly films, I like a good bit).

    • Thanks chum – I like that you have different landing strips around your TBR mountains! Don’t diss the Chan movies Richard, I love those! Though, agreed, they are pretty different from most but the earliest Chan adaptations 🙂

      • Richard says:

        I guess it’s just that the novels are straight-forward – for the time – mysteries while the movies are so much played for laughs. In the one I just finished, Chan asks that a package be sent, to be picked up by his oldest son. NOT number-one son, which I don’t think appears in any of the novels, but in all the films I’ve seen.

        • Richard says:

          Oh, and those Areas… more like Area 51 than landing strips..

        • Yes, sons number one (Keye Luke) and number two (Victor Sen Yung) are for comic relied and inventions of the movies. But only some of the entries are obviously comedic as opposed to whodunits with humour – many are very atmospheric with screenplays by the likes of the great Philip MacDonald (CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS is especially good and CHARLIE CHAN’S SECRET is also heartily recommended).

  9. John says:

    I like the plot and setting of SPEAK OF THE DEVIL which reminds me of Newton Gayle’s mysteries, mostly set in Puerto Rico. One even has a similar storm threatening the characters. I remember reading about the other book on Curt’s blog. Sounds very much like a Highsmith theme. Still haven’t read either of these. In fact I’ve read only two of Holding’s books and one short story. But I’ve seen both movie versions of THE BLANK WALL. I think you’d like THE DEEP END, the gay update of THE RECKLESS MOMENT with Tilda Swinton in the Joan Bennett role. You’re way ahead of me in reading this wriiter and I’m tempted to call you our Holding expert.

  10. I’ve been buying the STARK HOUSE omnibus editions of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding but haven’t found time to read them. But your fine review pushes Elisabeth Sanxay Holding higher on the Read Real Soon stack.

  11. tracybham says:

    I have yet to read anything by this author. I like the idea of the Stark House edition with introduction and checklist, but the old paperback editions look great too. I guess I could get both.

    • The Stark House editions are certainly sturdy and have great extras, which make a huge difference I think – some have covers more closely modeled on their pulp originals – here are a couple fo samples (and yes, reviews coming to Fedora soon):

  12. tracybham says:

    And I forgot to say how great it is to have you back. Glad you had a good break.

  13. Sergio, it’s good to have you back! Glad you had a memorable holiday Down Under. As for Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, I have only read a couple of her short stories and nothing more. It’d be interesting to read Mr. Gorman’s introduction which’d be a very informed perspective.

  14. Welcome back from Down Under! Your trip there (and the odd photo I saw on FB) made me think of that Tim Minchin song, White Wine in the Sun, do you know it?
    The books sound intriguing, I’ll put them on the list. Love those covers above!

  15. Yvette says:

    Yes, let me add my welcome homes to the list, Sergio. 🙂 These two books by authors heretofore unknown to me, sound like keepers to me too. I must add the titles to my Vintage TBR list at once!

  16. Jeff Flugel says:

    Welcome back, Sergio! Good to see you back in action. Both of these novels, from an author heretofore unknown to me, sound quite interesting, esp. THE OBSTINATE MURDERER. Thanks for introducing me to a new, intriguing-sounding writer.

  17. neer says:

    It’s nice to have you back Sergio. You were missed a lot.

    Like Bev, I too am undecided about Holding but your fine reviews make me want to read her once again. Thanks.

  18. Pingback: Speak of the Devil by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – Mysteries Ahoy!

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