“Death means so little to us, Marsh mused. A murder politely covered up with the trappings of an accident is just another death. There is nothing frightening about it so long as it is so disguised.”
Young doctor Marsh Mowbray is surprised to be invited to spend a weekend with her mentor, Dr. Katherine Waring. She’s always admired the older woman, but Dr. Kate never seemed to notice Marsh. What should be a restful holiday by the sea soon runs into stormy weather, as Marsh steps into a nest of family and professional dysfunction.
When Marsh finds Kate’s husband, Dr. Kingsley Waring, in a diabetic coma, she’s not sure what to think. Is it accidental, attempted suicide, or a near-murder? And how can she protect her patient from a houseful of doctors and nurses who all have the expertise to either cure or kill?
The Devil’s Caress is highly Gothic, with Marsh arriving at the isolated mansion in the middle of a crashing thunderstorm. A variety of creepy servants are hanging around, including Dr. Kate’s nurse, who acts as her adoring slave. Everyone always seems to be lurching around darkened corridors and falling off wind-swept cliffs. There’s even a clandestine midnight autopsy.
Unlike the typical Gothic heroine, however, Marsh is a determined, intelligent character. At first she is nervous to be thrust into all of this odd (and frankly embarrassing) family drama. But when she takes charge of Kingsley’s care, her instincts as a doctor give her the confidence to navigate the situation.
Indeed, her identity as a doctor, and specifically a female doctor, is central to understanding her behavior in this book. Marsh naturally trusts Dr. Kate because they have both dealt with life-and-death events at the hospital while also struggling with sexism and discrimination. (It’s quite satisfying when Marsh responds to an inquiry of “Mrs. or Miss?” with “Doctor!” It’s also depressing that modern readers can still see this exchange coming a mile away.)
Thus, when a male doctor questions Katherine’s treatment recommendations, it makes sense that Marsh would instinctively side with her mentor. Various male suspects offer to take over her patient, saying things like, “After all, a girl like you, a very attractive young girl, can’t have had much experience in diabetic cases.” It may be “just” sexism, or they may want access to Kingsley for their own reasons. On the other hand, however, Marsh is still relatively inexperienced. Dr. Kate could be making use of her hero worship to commit murder. Ultimately Marsh can only depend on her own judgement. She cannot count on anyone else to help her.
At the same time, her glimpse behind the curtain of Dr. Kate’s seemingly perfect life gives Marsh something to think about regarding her own future. Partly inspired by this woman who seems to have it all—a high-powered career, a successful marriage, and a child—Marsh is about to undertake a postgraduate fellowship in England. Now she has no choice but to confront the horrifying garbage fire that is the Waring family. Marsh wonders whether Dr. Kate is still the role model she wishes to emulate. Katherine Waring herself advises,
Emotional relationships with the opposite sex are not for you. They could ruin your career. Take it from my experience that they will do you no good. If, by some chance, you should become involved in any way, remember always to weigh up your everlasting interest in your career with that of a fleeting unsatisfactory phase.
There are various suitors vying for Marsh’s hand, none of them, indeed, very satisfactory. Marsh’s ultimate choice is an unusual one for the 1950s. Unfortunately, the question of career versus family and personal life is still an important issue facing all women (and men!) and the answer is still not very clear.
Another serious issue that is touched upon is that of euthanasia. Dr. Kate claims to be convinced that her husband attempted suicide. If he wanted to die, maybe they should allow that to happen. Marsh herself has similar thoughts as Kingsley lies dying:
At the hospital, with the patient an unknown personality, the situation was viewed cynically. The sooner death came the sooner one could get one’s meal. It seemed so futile to Marsh to keep checking the cylinders and injecting stimulants, when she knew for certain it was of no avail. She had only to remove the oxygen mask for a longer interval and all would be over. Then Kingsley Waring would be happy and she, Marsh, could go about the business of living.
She endeavored to shake off this defeatist mood. While there was a flicker of life it was her duty to encourage it. Waring’s life was neither his own nor his doctor’s to be throw away like a disused mechanical instrument.
This is a brief scene, but I think an important one. It shows how commonplace death is for these doctors and nurses—and how easy it would be to play God with a person’s life. Marsh resists the temptation. Others in the group give in.
The one element of the book that I find extremely distasteful is Wright’s treatment of Sam, a hired boy with developmental disabilities. Sam is portrayed as an ugly, frightening animal. Marsh is openly disgusted by him; ironically, the only character who treats him with any compassion is Michael, Dr. Kate’s borderline-psychopath son. Sam serves as a boogeyman, or a bit of scary window dressing. There is no attempt to portray this disabled child as a human being, a disappointing failure of compassion from an author who is typically more insightful.
The Devil’s Caress is less engaging than June Wright’s first novel, Murder in the Telephone Exchange. Still, it is an enjoyable mystery with a tricky solution and a feminist viewpoint that is ahead of its time.
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.
The Devil’s Caress is available from Verse Chorus Press.