Originally published in 1938
Also published as No Harm Intended
Emilia Swan calls Van Cleef at his club and begs him to come to her aid. Someone is blackmailing her. Though he’d rather have another drink, he agrees to visit her. But before he can leave he runs into the son of an old friend. Russell Blackman, a supercilious young man with a gifted intellect, has the unfortunate habit of alienating everyone around him. But he has always idolized Van Cleef, and agrees to drive him to Emilia’s country home if he can tag along.
When they arrive, they walk into a house filled with tension. Since the death of her husband—some say suicide—Emilia has let out rooms in her house. Staying with her are Major Bramwell, an irascible old gent who demands that they leave immediately; Annie and Harry Downes, neither of whom seem to like their hostess one bit; and Lizzy Carroll, a pale, sharp-featured girl who drives the Major to distraction with her loud music. That night Harry is stricken with a serious stomach illness. Russell thinks he’s been poisoned, but no one takes him seriously. The next night, Van Cleef himself is nearly poisoned. There is certainly more going on than mere blackmail, but will Van Cleef live long enough to figure out what it is?
This week I had one of those moments where you are suddenly struck by how fast time passes. It was in relation to the author of this book, suspense writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, as I came to realize that it has been well over three years since I last read anything by them. That struck me as particularly odd because I really loved the last of her works that I read, Speak of the Devil, and I had plenty of other titles by her waiting for my attention on my TBR pile. I can only say it wasn’t intentional and my experience reading this one has left me keen to ensure that I don’t allow another three years to pass before I try my next.
I selected The Obstinate Murder as my next Holding largely because it had been reprinted several years ago by Stark House as part of a twofer edition alongside Speak of the Devil. My thinking was that it would be nice to be able to offer a judgment on the value of that as a collection (expect my next few Holding reviews to similarly be the paired stories for others previously reviewed here). While I feel comfortable in saying that this is not as polished a work as the other, I was certainly glad to have read it.
The story concerns a man named Van Cleef who begins the story at his club when he is contacted by one of his old friends, a widow named Emilia. She implores him to immediately travel to see her and give her counsel as she is being blackmailed. Reluctantly he agrees but finds himself with an unexpected and unwelcome fellow traveler when he runs into Russell, a young man with a sparkling intelligence and rather awkward social skills who is keen to renew their acquaintance. The pair travel to Emilia’s home but there the trouble begins.
Since the death of her husband some years earlier, Emilia has been running the home as a guesthouse and has a number of visitors staying with her. When one of the guests goes to bed complaining of stomach pains, Russell insists that they are being poisoned but no one will take his claims seriously. When Van Cleef finds himself poisoned later that night, it seems that his claims might be truthful – the problem lies in understanding who would have a reason to want to carry out these poisonings.
Holding adopts a third person style narration, albeit one that is sympathetic to Van Cleef’s perspective on events. We are frequently told things that he is thinking and how he is reacting to the events happening around him. Yet the third person style also allows Holding to distance him from us when she wants to avoid disclosing every thought he has, making it possible for the book to occasionally lead off in some novel and perhaps unexpected directions.
Van Cleef is an interesting but often infuriating protagonist. The character’s alcoholism is portrayed quite convincingly throughout, particularly with regards the little rules he has about his drinking, and it does feel quite important to the book overall. He is also quite smart, making a few solid deductions at points during the course of the story. In spite of this though the character is really defined by his strong tendency to inaction.
Holding, to her credit, does do a good job of putting those choices in the context of the character’s personality. I felt that I understood, for instance, why he dismisses Russell’s concerns so often. Other matters though are sometimes a little harder to understand – particularly why he so readily dismisses Emilia’s claims – even though I feel things do get clearer toward the end.
My bigger issue with the book though is that a large part of its solution seemed pretty obvious from near the start, making the act of deducing that bit of the solution a little less impressive. That may not have been a problem if the story was devoid of whodunit questions but it does feel a little disappointing given that the scenario does present some pretty intriguing possibilities only to drop them in favor of the thrills.
Still, while the whodunit questions struck me as underwhelming, I did enjoy this as a character study. Of particular interest is the relationship between Van Cleef and Russell which is allowed to be a little loosely-defined. While I felt I had a clear idea of how Russell felt towards Van Cleef, we are not given definite confirmation and things are left somewhat undefined.
The motive behind the poisonings is at least quite a novel one and so adds a little excitement to the proceedings but even that moment, which should feel really powerful, falls a bit flat. I did appreciate though that I think the author does sell the credibility of their story well.
While I am aware that the tone of what I have written may sound a little negative, I do want to stress that I had a really good time with this book. The idea behind it is a very clever and interesting one and I appreciated the mix of types found within the house and suspected of the crime. While I do not feel that the whodunit aspect of the mystery really holds together, I thought that it offered some other points of interest.
The Verdict: A very entertaining story, mostly interesting for its bold characters. The Stark House reprint in which it pairs with the superior Speak of the Devil is a very interesting collection and certainly worth your time.
2 thoughts on “The Obstinate Murderer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding”
I found your review very interesting as this is the one book by this writer I have not got on well with. In fact this book put me off trying more of her stuff for quite a while. I think my struggle, if I recollect correctly, was with the characters – which is a bit awkward when the mystery is a character study as you say.
The Death Wish is one I really enjoyed though.
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He can be really frustrating as an investigator so I don’t blame you for struggling with him.
I do look forward to getting to The Death Wish which I also have waiting to be read. 🙂