'Now listen, Elizabeth. There'll be time for talk later. All I want to say now is this. I heard this noon; there's a boat tomorrow, I've got to take it, Elizabeth - the world is wide. And war changes things. So the real things - love and time - are so terribly important. Elizabeth, I want you...'
But he stopped then and took her in his arms.
It didn't matter about the world being wide. She wanted it only as wide as the circumference of his arms. War. She would not think of that, then. She moved closer within his arms.
There were many things I disliked about Speak No Evil, including the paragraph I've quoted above, but I thought the story's main flaw was that its premise made such little sense.
It is clear that the reader is not intended to feel much pity for Robert Dakin, the first murder victim, as he is a violent and abusive man. He frequently drinks to excess, and his wife and a valet live in constant fear of his temper. He punches his butler without provocation a few hours before he is murdered, and the poor man is rendered unconscious and remains that way for days. Robert Dakin liked to make threats and was quite willing to use his wealth, his bulk and his connections to ensure that he always got his own way. There are probably plenty of people who wanted him dead, though there are only a few who could have been guilty of the crime on the night he died. And there is one woman - and not his wife - who does regret his death; the possession of wealth and power can be alluring.
The murderer takes an enormous risk but succeeds in killing Dakin, and in the process leaves ample circumstantial evidence which focuses the police's attention very firmly on someone else. The police seem well-meaning but lacking in imagination, so circumstantial evidence is enough to satisfy them that they have identified the guilty party, although they dally in making an arrest.
Surely a rational murderer, in such circumstances, would have lain low? - but this one seems inexplicably intent on a killing spree. It is almost as if the police need do nothing, with the murderer on a course to solve the crime for them by attempting to murder every one of the small number of people who could have been responsible for Dakin's murder. There can be little doubt about who is guilty by the story's end.
The person the reader is clearly intended to feel sympathy for is Dakin's wife Elizabeth, but I don't think I have previously encountered such a pathetic character. Dakin was twenty-five years her senior when she married him two years before, and just prior to his death she had decided to leave the marriage as she could no longer stand his violent and aggressive ways, which gives her a motive. She seems full of excuses as to how she ended up in this position, but it is all so passive, as though the marriage was something which happened to her rather than something she brought upon herself. People ask her why she married such a man, but all she can offer are rationalisations rather than any reason which makes sense.
And having decided to leave Dakin, she looks around for someone to rescue her - an earlier lover and her husband's best friend both seem to be prospects - even though she is an heiress in her own right, and therefore independently wealthy. And after her husband is killed, her behaviour is even more difficult to understand: she covers up evidence and dissembles to protect people she imagines might be on her side. Elizabeth's only talent seems to be doing what other people want.
The story frustrated me from the first page to the last - the characters were caricatures, the actual motive for the murder was weak, there was too much focus on what everyone was wearing, and the book ended with such soppy prose. It seemed a lot like romance fiction masquerading as a crime novel.
First published 1941. Published in Penguin Books 1955.
By the same author:
Penguin no. 523: The Cases of Susan Dare