Tuesday, April 8, 2014

So Evil My Love

Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long (1885-1952) was a prolific English author who wrote under half a dozen pseudonyms. She is best remembered for the books she wrote as Marjorie Bowen. Her work was admired by Graham Greene and continues to enjoy a high reputation among fans of romance and gothic fiction. She also wrote mysteries under the name Joseph Shearing, including For Her To See which was published in 1947. In the US it was published as So Evil My Love.

While So Evil My Love is undoubtedly crime fiction it is not a detective story. The identity of  the murderer is never in doubt. It relies mainly on suspense, and even more on the author’s ability to create complex characters with contradictory motivations. The characters themselves often do not fully understand their own motivations and live lives based on self-deception. 

Mrs Olivia Sacret is the widow of a Dissenting clergymen who had gone to Jamaica as a missionary, where he had died after a lingering illness. On her return to England Mrs Sacret finds that her husband left her very poorly provided for. Even worse, she discovers that she possesses neither the social connections nor the skills to obtain any kind of decent paid employment.

In desperation she decides to look up the only real school friend she ever had. Susan has recently married for the second time, to a young banker named Martin Rue. The marriage is not a happy one. Martin Rue is a hypochondriac whose only interest in life, apart from his health, is growing exotic flowers. He is not really a bad man but he is ill-tempered, insensitive and miserly. He is constantly finding fault with his wife. His mother is a particularly unpleasant woman who makes her daughter-in-law’s life a misery and is intent on wrecking his marriage.

Susan herself is frivolous, weak-willed and unintelligent. Mrs Sacret discovers, quite by accident, that she has a hold over Susan. Susan had been the subject of malicious gossip over her relations with a married man and had written a series of letters to Mrs Sacret on the subject, letters that could at best be described as indiscreet, at worst as compromising. Susan immediately assumes that Mrs Sacret is intent on blackmailing her. Such a thought had never occurred to the pious widow of a missionary. Mrs Sacret would never dream of stooping to blackmail, but when Susan offers her a position as companion she accepts.

Mrs Sacret soon coms to dominate Susan completely. She still does not think of herself as a blackmailer although in practice that is precisely what she has become. Mrs Sacret has no difficulty in finding ways to justify her actions to herself and when she becomes enamoured of a handsome painter he encourages her to take whatever advantage she can of the situation.

The situation becomes increasingly fraught and eventually ends in murder.

The murder appears at first to be a case of suicide but the coroner’s jury returns an open verdict and there are those who are very dissatisfied by the assumption of suicide. The matter will not be allowed to rest.

While there is plenty of suspense the novel’s strong suit is the merciless dissection of the personalities and motives of the leading characters. Mrs Sacret had been an inoffensive and rather insignificant woman who succumbed to temptation. Having done so she becomes increasingly corrupted by her own actions. Susan is also a weak character although she is weak in very different ways compared to Olivia Sacret. Martin Rue is yet another weak character, excessively dominated by his mother and unable to bring himself to take the steps he needs to take in order to save his marriage. 

These are not evil people as such, but weakness of character can lead to evil results. Weakness can have a corrosive effect on the personality and it can set in motion a self-reinforcing cycle that leads ever further downwards.

The author’s style is at times playfully ironic but the irony can at times take on a much harder edge. She is extremely adept in her depiction of the dangers of self-deception.

So Evil My Love is a gripping and skillful psychological crime novel and is highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently the film of the book with Ann Todd and Ray Milland is regarded as a superior film noir!