Reprint of the Year Award Choice No. 1 – The Devil’s Caress by June Wright

If you are sitting there reading this and wondering what the Reprint of the Year Award is all about when it’s at home, then I recommend checking out this short post here, which introduces the concept, including how readers can nominate books. However in a nutshell this month 8 other bloggers and I are running a competition to decide which is the best vintage mystery reprint of 2018. Each blogger is allowed 2 nominations and today sees us talking about our first choices.

To check out what the other nominations are recommended check out the following blogs today:

However back to my own first choice. Regular readers of the blog will probably not be too surprised by my first pick, Australian writer June Wright, as I have yet to read a poor novel by her. Over the last few years Verse Chorus Press have reprinted 4 of her works: The Murder in the Telephone Exchange, So Bad a Death, Duck Season Death and The Devil’s Caress. It was this latter non-series title which came out earlier this year. If this is the first time you’ve come this book let me fill you in with a brief synopsis:

So why does this title deserve to win Reprint of the Year?

After much pondering I have narrowed this down to 6 reasons….

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?

1.The Australian Setting

When you read as much mystery fiction as I do, a setting which does not take place in the UK or USA is decidedly refreshing. However, the setting in this book is much more than a novelty factor, as I strongly feel Wright makes good use of the Melbourne peninsula location she selects. Wendy Lewis in the reprint’s introductions sums the tale as an ‘atmospheric psychological thriller about doubt, madness and the burden of responsibility,’ and all of these components are heightened by the choice of setting, in combination with the unpleasant weather which occurs throughout the story. Additionally the deaths which happen in the book often develop out of the setting the various characters are in.

2. The Fusion of Subgenres

In the vein of Ethel Lina White, Wright’s novel does not fit neat categories of mystery fiction. From the more internal setting we have a variation on the country house mystery, whilst in terms of the atmosphere, female lead and certain dramatic events, we also experience a suspense or psychological thriller. In combination all of these elements transpire to give the reader a very gripping and fast paced read. I wouldn’t say this book has an entirely closed set of suspects, but Wright does create through and around the characters a strong sense of claustrophobia. The characters increasingly feel like they are crammed in together and on top of each other, which of course brings all tensions and frictions to boiling point.

3.Gender Roles and the Medical milieu

Wright acknowledged Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, as an inspiration for her own work. And no this does not mean Wright’s book is long and full of Latin quotes! However what both of these novels by Wright and Sayers do share is the way they use their settings/milieus to explore the role of women in society and in particular look at the responses to the professional working woman. In Sayers’ novel this is female academics, but in Wright’s book she has a medical milieu which include both male and female doctors. The tensions between the two groups is well conceived in the book, yet Wright’s refrains from any soap box rants or soliloquies. The reader is definitely left to their own devices as to how they respond to the issues the doctors bring up. In particular I found it interesting how the female doctors are under greater suspicion due to being perceived as unfeminine and therefore unnatural. The romance subplot in this book is also coloured by this theme and those who find the romances in the works of Heyer and Wentworth a bit too sickly sweet or predictable, will enjoy the fraught and complicated thread romance weaves through Wright’s tale.

4.Amateur sleuth – hostile and under suspicion.

Dr Marsh Mowbray is the amateur sleuth in this story and she eschews the enthusiasm most characters with this status tend to exude. However thankfully she also doesn’t make a big song and dance about her reluctance to investigate, as this is a slight pet reading peeve of mine. The hostile way she is treated with the others and the way she is even seen as potentially criminally suspicious, also pull her further away from the happy go lucky amateur sleuthing role of previous decades. The limited time scale she has for her investigation also adds to the tension of the story.

5.Wright’s Darkest Novel

There are dark elements to Wright’s earlier novel So Bad a Death, but I feel this one takes this aspect further. That said you won’t need therapy after reading this book, nor will you need to leave the light on at bedtime. Instead the darkness of this book is concerned with human nature, which is not shown at its best in this book, though interestingly I did not find myself repulsed by the characters, which is a testament to the skilful characterisation Wright deploys in this text. Furthermore, the theme of hero worship and how it can become dangerous or warped, is brilliantly woven into the mystery plot and the amateur sleuth who is investigating the case. It does not surprise me that this book has said to be reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s work, nor that it has been adapted for the stage by the Factory Space Theatre Company earlier this year.

6. The Ending

Of course I am not going to reveal the solution but I thought it was important to conclude on the puzzle aspect of the mystery, as I know that suspense/psychological thrillers can be presumed to be lacking in puzzlement and mystification. I found this to not be the case with Wright’s novel. I found I had a lot to ponder and muse over in terms of the mystery itself and I found the final twist to be a clever one. Overall the ending is emotional and poignant, but in terms of its mechanics, the solution is also quite complex and intricate. I also feel justified in saying that in the manner of Christie, Wright is components in hiding clues in plain sight.

In conclusion I would say that modern psychological thrillers could learn a lot from Wright and this book in particular. There are many elements to this novel, which I have tried to pick out, yet when it comes to the reading experience these aspects are not artificially compartmentalised and instead come across a living and breathing organic whole. I also think it is great that publishers such as Verse Chorus Press are bringing back into circulation mystery novels from the vintage period, which did not hail for the UK and USA. It is only through such reprints that academics and fans alike can get a bigger picture of what was happening in mystery fiction around the world before 1960.

So hopefully this has persuaded of Wright’s merit or at the very least has sent you away to try one of her books.

10 comments

    • Sounds like you have a good library. Do they have any others by her? I would say TDC’s is a departure in some respects from her earlier work. I would also recommend So Bad Death as well, as a strong amateur sleuth/police novel, with a highly unusual murder weapon.

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      • They have a huge amount electronically, through Hoopla. Alas they limit you to 6 titles per month, total. And not on Kindle, just their app. Still it’s nice to have.
        They have the four in the series.

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  1. I have been meaning to read a June Wright book ever since you first reviewed here – this sounds really good, and you certainly present the case for it beautifully! I’m not supposed to be liking yours, I should be supporting my own choices! But I’d be very tempted to vote for this one. (So far – lots of books to come… )

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    • Well thankfully I’m going to let people have more than one vote in the polls. I think you would enjoy Wright’s work, as most of it has a strong female focus and with interesting social points of interest.

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  2. My library doesn’t have this one (darn the luck)–but they do have Murder in the Telephone Exchange. So, i’ve put that down on my wish-list reading for the New Year (still have challenge books to work through for 2018).

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  3. […] And so we come to the second and final week of the multi-blog thread (and sort-of competition) for Reprint Of The Year. Last week, I championed The Case Of The Dead Shepherd by Christopher Bush, the highlight for me of the strong series of reprints from Dean Street Press. You can see my fellow bloggers thoughts for the first week indexed over at Cross Examining Crime. […]

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  4. […] If you have been off on an Antarctic expedition and have been too busy cuddling penguins to keep up to date on your favourite crime fiction blogs, then you may be scratching your heads as to what this is all about. If you are such an explorer then click here for the lowdown at what the Reprint of the Year Awards is all about. Equally if you missed the nominations announced and argued for last week, by myself and my fellow bloggers, click the link here. […]

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