“I’m going to get even with all these people,” she said quietly. “So that you won’t even find a daisy where they’ve been.”
“If there’s anything I can do to stop you, let me know, won’t you?” I asked.
“Nobody can stop me, darling. I’ve found my life’s work.”
Folly is an island just south of Charleston and the Ashley River plantations where Road to Folly takes place. Folly is also a foolish mistake, and all the characters are rushing headlong down that road.
When spoiled heiress Phyllis Lattimer married gentleman farmer Rusty, she expected more of a gentleman and less of a farmer. With her third marriage on the rocks, Phyllis summons her friend Diane Baker to help her through the crisis.
It’s odd what Charleston society will and won’t talk about. Everyone knows that Rusty is in love with Jennifer Reid, that Jennifer has been going around with Phyllis’s ex-husband Bradley Porter, and that Jennifer’s brother killed their father all those years ago. Yet no one discusses these things openly, until Phyllis tears through their lives on a mission of vengeance.
Everyone also knows that there is no divorce in the state, repeatedly telling Diane, “Death is the only release from marriage in South Carolina.” And they’re dead right.
Despite her selfishness, Phyllis is a strangely appealing character. Headstrong and vital, she is able to size up situations at a glance and cut through all the southern gentility to the heart of the matter. Diane, as you might expect, is a bit of a doormat. Time and again she lets herself be drawn into Phyllis’s drama. However, the friendship between them rings absolutely true, and Diane may be the only person in the world who really cares what happens to Phyllis.
Phyllis, half flower and half poison, always to be coped with, to keep either half from running wild in the garden of my life, was gone, and there was a bare mangled spot where nothing could ever grow again. All the times I could gladly have cut her throat, all the times I had depended on her and she on me to the utmost of friendship, from our perambulators in Rittenhouse Square to…to this, came surging back to me.
Though loyal to her friend, Diane can’t help feeling sorry for Jennifer, whose young life has been blighted by terrible family secrets. The author is a bit romantic about the “civilized” old families of Charleston. At the same time, Ford is deeply interested in the dark side of family pride. The Reid family stands as a monument to the folly of upholding family tradition at the expense of your own happiness.
The insularity of this community also leaves outsiders vulnerable, especially with a killer on the loose. Eavesdropping on the police, Diane is shocked by their reluctance to investigate the Lattimers or the Reids, all of whom should be prime suspects. “It seemed to me that every time they came to an avenue that would seem open they closed it quietly, saying, ‘Good God, I’ve known that family all my life,’ and that settled that.”
I haven’t said much about the mystery, because there isn’t much to say about it. The first murder doesn’t take place until about halfway through the book. This is far too long, but I was kept entertained by Phyllis’s antics and the evocative Low Country atmosphere. There is no real investigation to follow along with. Diane is more interested in the love lives of her fellow suspects than in their guilt. This is another one like The Pattern where the heroine wanders around being rich and frightened while others solve the case without her. (One unusual element is the lack of a romance for the protagonist. Diane is already married, so she matchmakes for others instead.) It’s a soap opera with occasional murders, but a very superior one.
The solution, and the events that follow, serve to illuminate Ford’s larger theme: How much should you be willing to sacrifice for your family? That mystery remains unsolved.
Kirkus Reviews, February 26, 1940:
A good yarn, but scarcely ranking as a mystery or detective story. Characters, setting (Charleston) and situation make it good reading, but the interest lies in the tale of how old Charleston pride conceals the skeletons in the family cupboard even at risk of destruction of happiness and peace and love.
Road to Folly is available in paperback and ebook formats from Wildside Press. Please note that these modern editions also credit Ford under her real name, Zenith Brown.