Dan, a drifter and jack-of-all-trades, most recently a page boy at a provincial English hotel. This young man seems exceptionally good-natured, obliging, and happy-go-lucky, but as the play progresses, it becomes clear that he is criminally insane. Like the classic psychopath, he is devoid of feeling for other human beings but has the ability to ingratiate himself with people by instinctively harmonizing with their personalities, mirroring their attitudes and opinions with uncanny skill. He quickly wins over the lonely Mrs. Bramson by giving her the attention she craves and becomes a trusted member of her household.
Olivia Grayne, a penniless niece of Mrs. Bramson who lives with her as a companion and housekeeper. This plain-looking, twenty-eight-year-old woman is a picture of repressed resentment, hostility, and physical longing. She wears horn-rimmed glasses and does her hair in a tight bun. She is intelligent and intuitive. She quickly sees through Dan’s mask of innocence. Almost as soon as he enters the household as a personal attendant to Mrs. Bramson, Olivia begins to suspect that he is the one responsible for the recent murder of Mrs. Chalfont, who had been staying at the hotel where Dan was employed. Olivia also falls under his spell; in fact, she saves him from exposure when Inspector Belsize is about to discover that the murdered woman’s missing head is concealed in Dan’s hatbox. Olivia finally admits to Dan that he has sized her up correctly: They are soulmates; they both are seething with hatred over the humiliations they suffer in their subservient social roles. She would commit murder herself if she had Dan’s courage.
Mrs. Bramson, a wealthy widow. Although only fifty-five years old and fairly robust, this unhappy, selfish, and domineering woman has decided to play the invalid. She sits in a wheelchair that she does not need and forces everyone to dance in attendance. Her inconsiderate, demanding behavior has earned for her the hatred of her servants and her niece. Mrs. Bramson immediately conceives a mother’s affection for Dan because he knows how to manipulate her with pretended love and concern for her many imaginary ailments. Being naturally obtuse, she does not suspect that he is planning to rob her of the large amount of cash she keeps on the premises.
Hubert Laurie, a middle-class businessman up from London on a vacation. He is thirty-five years old but already ossified in thoughts and manners. He is in love with Olivia and hangs about trying to persuade her to marry him; however, she tells him bluntly that he is an unmitigated bore. He is the antithesis of the sexually exciting Dan. Laurie represents Olivia’s only possible escape from the tyranny of Mrs. Bramson and by his very presence shows why she feels trapped and embittered.
Mrs. Terence, Mrs. Bramson’s middle-aged Cockney cook. She is the only servant who is not terrified of her employer. She provides comic relief by telling Mrs. Bramson what everyone else is afraid to say: that she is a tyrant and a malingerer. Mrs. Terence quickly falls under Dan’s spell and becomes his ally.
Dora Parkoe, Mrs. Bramson’s long-suffering maid, a pretty but stupid and spineless woman, twenty years old. She is responsible for Dan coming to the household; she confesses that he has gotten her pregnant. When Mrs. Bramson summons him to demand that he marry Dora, Dan agrees but obviously has no intention of doing so. Dora represents the dismal marital prospects available to a man of his class. By her presence, she shows why he is so motivated to escape his fate by getting his hands on a large sum of money.
Inspector Belsize, a foxy and tenacious Scotland Yard detective of fifty who is investigating the murder of the headless woman. Belsize is continually popping up at the Bramson home to ask questions and deliver news of the progress of the investigation. At the end of the play, he arrests Dan for murdering Mrs. Chalfont and subsequently murdering his employer, Mrs. Bramson.