Speak No Evil (1941) by M. G. Eberhart

There is no concealment of the central victim in this Jamaica-set story as the first sentence tells us that Robert Dakin is going to kick the bucket and not of natural causes. Following on from this we learn of his wife, Elizabeth and her increasing fear of him. Robert is an alcoholic and with that comes unpredictable mood swings and volatile and violent outbursts. During his latest drinking bout, he threatens his wife when it comes out that she wants to leave him and that she may well be leaving him for his cousin’s son, Dyke Sanderson. It just so happens that Dyke and Robert’s assistant, Ruth Reddington are coming to Montego Bay with papers for Robert, so you know it won’t be long before another outburst comes from Elizabeth’s husband. When it does arrive, it leaves the butler knocked unconscious and Elizabeth held hostage in her bedroom. The door to which leads straight into Robert’s study, in which her drunken and enraged husband is residing. At this point she decides to flee and climb down her balcony’s ivy. Yet before she manages this, she hears two gunshots. Fear stuns her but when she eventually goes into the study she finds her husband dying. Whilst some readers may be thinking Elizabeth will be relieved Robert is dead, things have actually got much worse for her, as all the evidence seems to point to her having done the deed: The study door was locked from the inside, the window has a 25 foot drop and the only way the killer could have left is through Elizabeth’s bedroom and out through the balcony, yet she says she saw no one. All other known on-sight suspects are on the other side of the study door waiting to be let in. The weapon is initially missing – though its eventual hiding place does Elizabeth no good. The only unusual clue which points beyond her is a wooden image of three monkeys in the see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil poses. So it’s not surprising the local police inspector regards Elizabeth as his prime suspect and he’s not the only one questioning her version of events. Whilst it seems Elizabeth has two male protectors, vying for her affections, you can’t help but wonder whether either of these or even both of these men have ulterior motives. We also can’t forget about Ruth, who treats Elizabeth like poison and there is also of course Robert’s first wife, who just so happens to be living on the island as well. The cards are certainly stacked against Elizabeth, but can she prove her innocence?

Overall Thoughts

The first 70 pages of this story are masterly in the way they quickly plunge Elizabeth into such a dangerous situation. The dominos rapidly knock into each other and don’t seem to allow any wiggle room, as an iron-clad case is made against her. It might not be the most original of locked room murder setups, but setup well it is, (though a map might not have been a bad idea).

We then have the central characters, in particular Elizabeth, Dyke and Cyril Kirkby, (friend of Robert’s and second man who professes love for Elizabeth). The narrative, post-murder, mostly resides with this trio, with additional characters entering the mix, as the police work mostly in the background. In particular we often have Elizabeth paired with one of these men for a time, before the other joins as an awkward gooseberry. Why is this important? Well I think the way Eberhart builds up these three characters and the psychological dynamic she creates between them all, makes up the most interesting component of the story. As we get to learn more of Elizabeth’s background, we see how she has unwisely made certain choices, her judgement has not been the soundest. This weakness though, is vitally relevant for her current situation with two suitors in the offing. She needs to be able to observe these two accurately, as her life could well depend on it and the fact you know she’s not strong in this area, adds an additional layer of tension. This part of the book is so successful that it definitely influenced my final rating, which might seem higher than expected. My only criticism of this aspect is that Eberhart shows her hand too early. I think more ambiguity would have hidden that element of the mystery longer.

I have to be honest and say that this mystery is not to be read solely for its locked room aspect. Whilst it is set up well, I don’t think Eberhart is particularly bothered about producing an impressive solution, nor allowing her investigation narrative focus too deeply on the question of ‘how.’ The final solution is perfectly acceptable in that it works, but it’s one which is likely to spring to the reader’s mind, even if they have only the most elementary of knowledge when it comes to locked room crimes. So perhaps this not one to recommend for locked room aficionados JJ or Tomcat. In fact, I would go as far as saying that Eberhart is much more interested in directing her narrative to focus on further dramatic incidents; missing items, near death and actual deaths, all wrapped up in foggy and night-time situations. In her defence she writes this type of drama very well, so it does become quite immersive. In terms of clues or relevant information to do with crime I found such details to be densely packed into certain places in the book e.g. in the runup and initial aftermath of the crime, followed by the final quarter. There is of course the good old letter to be read after my untimely death trope, which for the seasoned mystery reader will feel a bit convenient and I feel like it is used to help wrap up the story in a matter of pages. Although to give her her due, Eberhart does include one very good clue in plain sight, though she doesn’t back it up with circumstantial clues, outside of the aforementioned letter, meaning the reader can’t really build on it as such. On reflection I think if someone gave the setting, crime setup and the central characters to John Dickson Carr, under the condition that he doesn’t include any of his series sleuths, (which would steal the limelight from the protagonists), I think he could have made a more satisfying story in terms of the mystery.

As a suspense writer Eberhart is adept, yet I’m not sure she should have tried to marry this skill with the locked room mystery. Including a locked room mystery sets up certain narrative expectations, in my opinion. It puts pressure on the solution in terms of its reasoning and cluing and also suggests a certain complexity of puzzle and I think these expectations clash with what Eberhart is good at delivering in terms of the suspense mystery novel. The solution is not about a detailed analysis for her, it’s about bringing the story to the climax of its final crescendo of drama and emotion. In her hands I’m not sure they mix well. I feel like I am rambling on now so I better stop, but if any readers have more lucid and articulate thoughts on this issue do share!

Rating: 4/5

Calendar of Crime: November (7) Book Title with a Word Starting with N

2 comments

  1. I would go as far as saying that Eberhart is much more interested in directing her narrative to focus on further dramatic incidents; missing items, near death and actual deaths, all wrapped up in foggy and night-time situations.

    Yeah, this seems to be the case in the one books of hers I’ve read, as well. Long on moodiness and atmosphere — ideally as fraught as possible — and things like plot and misdirection can come later. Which is fine, some people like that kind of thing and some authors write it brilliantly, but her setups sound too interesting to be treated in such a slapdash way. With slightly more assured juggling of tropes and expectations, there’s so much more that could have been done…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! And it felt even more frustrating with this one as the moodiness and atmosphere really didn’t overtake the plot until over half way, so it gave the illusion that the book might turn out a more satisfying mystery. I don’t really have this problem with Ethel Lina White – when she does a detective investigation style mystery she meets those requirements better and if she wants to do something different then she gives herself a different setup i.e. Some Must Watch or The First Time He Died.

      Like

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