Speak of the Devil is the third novella I have read by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and, I am happy to say, it did not disappoint. In fact I am increasingly struck by the idea that Holding may be becoming one of my favorite writers. Certainly I think her work deserves far more recognition than it seems to get.
This story is narrated by a Miss Peterson, a young woman who is travelled aboard a ship to Cuba to start a new life in the Caribbean. While on board she meets the charming Mr. Fernandez who persuades her that she should travel with him to the island of Riquezas to be the hostess at a new hotel he is opening. She is hesitant but he tells her that he will grant her the job on a trial basis and if she is unhappy with it (or his conduct toward her) she can leave with no questions asked.
Shortly after she arrives at the hotel Cecily, a woman with her own mysterious past who was her predecessor as hostess, comes to her to say that she killed a man in self-defense. While Miss Peterson does not believe Cecily’s story, she is puzzled by Mr. Fernandez’s unwillingness to contact the Police but things become even more confusing when the body is found.
And then there is the locals’ talk that the Devil himself was seen roaming the halls of the hotel…
One of the things I have come to appreciate most in Holding’s work is her ability to create a sense of uncertainty both in her characters and for her readers. Both of the stories I previously reviewed featured narrators who seem at odds with the world around them, appearing increasingly unhinged as they become more certain of a danger that only they see.
Speak of the Devil also features a protagonist who is experiencing events somewhat differently than those around them but it reverses that dynamic. Miss Peterson is clear-headed, calm and rational in the face of what seems to be chaos or possibly even supernatural events. There is still a tension between her and the characters around her as she seems to be the only person who cares about the idea of discovering the truth. The difference is that the reader can have more faith in Miss Peterson’s accounts of events as she is clearly identified as the voice of sanity and reason from the start of the story.
While those other stories I have read featured mundane settings in which a character claims extraordinary things are happening, here Holding presents us with a rich, exotic locale that feels atmospheric and full of danger.
Sometimes atmosphere can be a substitute for depth of theme or an interesting crime but I think this story really springs out of the unsettling feelings that Holding is able to create. The hotel may not be a small building but it becomes claustrophobic and threatening at times, in part because so much of it remains unoccupied. I may not have taken the idea of a supernatural explanation seriously (and I do not think we are really meant to) but I could certainly imagine someone malevolent roaming the halls.
Holding creates some really striking imagery, particularly in relation to the Devil of the title. This idea manifests itself in several ways in the novella and, at times, quite unexpectedly. For instance there is a moment in which the Devil is described by the locals that plays contrary to more familiar American or European ideas. Those moments never feel obvious and I think that they really help enrich this story and build tension at some key points in the narrative.
While the short page count does mean that the narrative is quite compressed, Holding’s supporting characters feel surprisingly well-developed though some information must be inferred rather than directly stated. Mr. Fernandez is probably the most vibrant creation, speaking with a precision and formality that says an enormous amount about his character. I think however that the smaller characters such as Cecily and Mrs Fish are even more interesting because of how much of their characters and histories are initially hidden, being teased out over the course of the story.
The exploration of these characters and their stories is fascinating and I felt Holding constructs a really engaging story around them. Though her work tends to be described as suspense fiction, there is a mystery for the reader to solve, though I failed to reach deduce it myself. I found the explanation, when given, to be satisfying and inventive and I was thrilled by the final chapters which feel full of tension.
Is it perfect? Not quite – Holding’s prose is often very accomplished but I find her occasional slides between third and first person narration to be a little awkward. I feel like I am quibbling though because this is not unique to this book and in fact this happens far more rarely than in her other works I have read so far.
The only other negative I can offer is that this is a less challenging work than some of the others I have previously read by Holding. In some ways though I think that may have been to this story’s benefit as it also feels more cohesive with a more intricate plot and clearer development of narrative themes. For that reason, while I would say that Lady Killer is a more exciting and inventive read, Speak of the Devil may be a more accessible starting point for readers who are new to her work. Both, however, are thoroughly recommended.
As with many of Holding’s works, I was only able to find a couple of reviews online. One is part of a discussion of a double-header publication featuring this and The Obstinate Murderer on Tipping My Fedora.
The other is John Grant’s Goodreads review. While John notes that he wrote his review in haste, he makes an excellent point about the characterization of Miss Peterson (and Holding’s choice not to give us all of the details) that I absolutely agree with.