The Devil’s Caress (1952) by June Wright

Source: Review Copy (Verse Chorus Press)

Ever since I tried her first novel, Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948), I have loved June Wright’s work. She is a mystery writer who brilliantly evokes her Australian background in her stories and frequently writes back to British culture and fiction. My enjoyment of her work continued with So Bad a Death (1949) and Duck Season Death (2015) and all three of these were reprinted by the Verse Chorus Press. I am so glad they are continuing to reprint the rest of her output, with today’s read being the latest one. Wendy Lewis, who has adapted this story for the stage writes the introduction and I would say, having done the complete opposite that you would be recommended to read this section after reading the novel. It doesn’t reveal major spoilers, but I have a feeling that quite a few readers may still feel they know a little too much going into the book. However, I am safe in saying that Lewis sums up this tale well as an ‘atmospheric psychological thriller about doubt, madness and the burden of responsibility.’

The actions takes place on the top of a peninsula near Melbourne, in and around the summer home of Dr Katherine and Dr Kingsley Waring, which is on the edge of a cliff, prone to high winds and bad rainy weather. Suffice to say this is never a safe option when you’re in a murder mystery novel. Other guests include Kingsley’s sister and husband, the two nurses that work alongside the Waring doctors, Dr Larry Gair, a surgeon, Michael, the Waring’s son and Dr Marsh Mowbray, who has worked under Katherine and is going to go to England in a few days. Katherine suggests coming to her home in order to get some rest before the trip, yet unsurprisingly her stay is far from restful. Within a short space of time Marsh is confronted with two suspicious deaths, both of which leave her looking at her mentor, Katherine, in a new more sinister light. Marsh’s conflicting thoughts are exacerbated by the way those around her are determined to blacken Katherine’s name, eager to believe the absolute worst and exploit the subsequent confusion for their own gain. As the tension mounts and Marsh’s lines of support disappear, the truth finally emerges, but will she left alive to tell the tale?

Overall Thoughts

In a nutshell I would say that Wright continues the high standards of her previous books. Not only does she get it right in terms of readability and gripping reader attention, but she also delivers on her authentic setting and depiction of the perceived gender roles of the time and the friction these caused. This is definitely seen in the way the male characters talk about and talk to the female medical professionals, presuming they are too inexperienced, incapable or unfeminine. You really do feel like Marsh and Katherine are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they want male characters to treat them nicely they have to put up with sexist jibes or if they refute or rebut the jibes they then have to accept being lonely and being seen to be inhuman. I think this common problem is one of the many things that binds Marsh to her mentor and one of the reasons she is loath to believe she is capable of committing acts of violence. This is definitely a book which I wish Dorothy L Sayers had read and commented on, as this story feels like a descendent of Gaudy Night (1935) in how it deals with gender.  However I think Wright poses a much more complex and fraught version of the romance subplot and the result is pleasingly unorthodox, though again the difficulties Marsh faces in this area are similar to those faced by Sayers’ Harriet Vane.

In terms of subgenre/style I would say this is a combination of a country house mystery, with a medical milieu, wrapped up in a psychological thriller formula, which is showcased well within the Waring household where underlying tensions are present upstairs and down. Marsh makes for an interesting amateur sleuth. This is not a role she relishes, but neither does she spend half the book whinging about it. It is not a role other characters appreciate in her either, acting in a very hostile manner towards her questions. The limited time scale she faces also adds to the tension of the investigation she is trying to conduct. In So Bad a Death, there are hues of darkness, which pervade beneath respectable surfaces, yet I would say in today’s read that the levels of darkness are far higher. Human nature does not have its finest hour in this tale, in particular the way hero worship can become devastatingly warped. Reader sympathy is doled out in very small amounts. But at the same time you are not repulsed by the characters you are reading about. It is a very unusual experience, though not a bad one.

Like Alan Melville I would say that Wright is capable of producing starkly different styles within her mystery fiction, though there are some common themes between her books. Today’s read makes a change from the other reprints in that it shows Wright exploring the psychological thriller. Normally I am a not a huge fan of this genre, but there are some exceptions, such as Ethel Lina White and Wright is certainly added to this exceptions list, as she writes in this style really well, keeping you engaged in the story and trying to work out who is behind all the suspicious events. The solution for this tale is brilliant, being surprisingly intricate and complex, bound by very difficult human emotions, which creates a great deal of drama and poignancy at the denouement of the book. Wright is, dare I say it, Christie-sque in the way she conceals the truth from the reader in plain sight and I think that is one of the reasons why she is good within this mystery subgenre. As my final rating shows this is a book I hugely enjoyed and would definitely recommend. I can’t wait for the next reprint to be released!

Rating: 5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): During a Weather Event

20 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, and I wasn’t expecting such a strong rating until I read the final paragraph – I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 Did Verse Chorus Press send you a hardcopy? As you know, I’ve the title on my Kindle, and so I’m glad to know that Wright’s novels are going from strength to strength. Hope Verse Chorus Press releases the rest!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They did but then it got lost in the post. Fairly convinced some GAD fan courier has snaffled it lol So in the end I read an e-version. VCP are planning on reprinting the others, one a year I believe, so no binge reading Wright for me! I know thrillers are not absolute favourites but I think there is enough to be puzzling on with, within in this one and there are a few slippery clues thrown in there as well.

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  2. I have Murder in the Telephone Exchange (and have had it for years) but haven’t read it. Therefore, very glad to hear that you liked this one and other books by this author. I hope it motivates me to get to that one sometime soonish.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought for a minute you managed to find a used copy but was truly surprised that this is a reprint. News to me, but very good news. I thought for sure I would’ve been notified because I had been on her son Patrick’s email list for a few years. Oh well. I have this one in a 1st edition and was planning on reading it in July or August. Guess I’ll move it up to help promote this new reissue. I hope Verse Chorus Press chooses to reprint RESERVATION FOR MURDER next. The ending is kind of ridiculous with a boat chase and kidnapping right out of a 1940s movie serial, but the rest of the book is filled with fascinating women characters and rich with murder mystery gimmickry that will excite many fans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Look forward to your take on the book. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Do you have copies of all of Wright’s books? Hopefully the reprints will keep coming as I think that is probably my only chance of reading the rest of Wright’s books.

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      • The publisher at Verse Chorus just left a comment on my blog informing me that I was mistaken about the suspension of the June Wright reprints. They are indeed planning to release every one of her books. Just discovered that Reservation for Murder is coming out next year. Woo hoo! And the last two are planned for release in 2021. I think I know who may be up for Reprint of the Year come the 2020 nominations.

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  4. Just finished this one. Great novel! It would be even better I think if some detective character was in it, As you wrote, it’s more a thriller genre, but it is also a great whodunnit.

    Do you plan perhaps to review Case With Nine Solutions from J.J. Connigton soon? It’s a praised book, but your opinion would be great to hear. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adding a detective character into the book might be a bit problematic, but I take your point. A key theme of the book is about women finding their place in a male dominated field of work/ in the world generally and if for instance a male detective came along and solved the case, that might undermine some of the points being made in the book. I wonder if the female lead could have been made more sleuth-like?
      I have not read a Connington for a while and only read two overall. The first I read was better than the second. I don’t have Case with 9 Solutions, but I am not against giving it a go at some point if I could find a copy. I have found some of his work rather dry though. Jim Noy at The Invisible Event or Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time have reviewed a few more Connington titles, so their blogs might be of use.

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      • Oh, I didn’t mean that a detective would necessary have to be a male. I agree that female amateur sleuth would be great in this one. That was perhapse lacking a little – someone who would repeat the facts of the case for a reader, point to more important things, etc. But it is not so typical for a thriller. That is probably why I like classic golden age style more I guess.

        Thank you for recommending these other blogs. Looking forward to your next reviews!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh sorry I misunderstood you.
          I don’t know if this is the only Wright novel you have read but some of her other books are more traditional detective novels. The Murder in the Telephone Exchange and So Bad a Death are her two Maggie Bryne mysteries. The second is the best, but they are best read in order. Duck Season Death is also a fun tongue in cheek amateur sleuth mystery.

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          • This is my only Wright novel for now, but I certainly want to read more. I’ve read your reviews of these other novels and I’m looking forward to them. Beside this novel, I’ve just finished Tyline Perry’s Owner lies death, also because of your review and Moray Dalton’s The Night of Fear – I enjoyed both very much. Night of fear is a classic country house murder mystery, written by another great golden-age writter with engaging style. Before I purchase new titles, I still have to finish Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolate Case which is the next one on my shelf. All these authors are new for me and it’s great to have so much quality crime novels that still wait for me to read them.
            The most important thing in a crime novel for me is the mystery centered on the characters of a victim and a murderer, and if clues and detective’s thought process is included (with questions for readers), then it’s perfect (the ionly exception is Carr, where murder method can be equally or more interesting than who and why). I guess that’s the reason why I like your blog more. I think I got hooked on such novels when I read Agatha’s Appointment with death – so interesting characters, setting, clues and Poirot’s questions. TV adaptation of this novel is shameful, but that’s another subject.

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