Deil Connor (I chose to rhyme his first name with "veil" while I was reading) is the artist fed up with life now that he is in the final stages of tuberculosis. His prey is Roger Tildesley, a man whose three wives have all suffered accidental deaths -- the last two from falls, and he is convinced that the fates of those women is far too coincidental to pass off as mere accidents. He also targets an arsonist who killed his wife and child, and a woman who poisoned the children of the man she loved. But the arsonist is in Paris and the poisoner is in Italy. Conner can’t very well travel all over the world killing acquitted murderers. If he is patient perhaps Fate will work some coincidences in his favor. And there is part of the fault with the story as fresh and as it seems to a 1967 audience. That and Coffman's inability to escape her romance novelist background.
While in Deil Connor she has created a likable character, he is also filled with anger and hatred and not a little bit of misanthropy. He's of course good looking in that dark Byronic way and his personality suits that melancholia that resides within the true Byronic hero. At one point he envisions one of his victims slowly suffocated and fantasizes how just it would be for that victim to feel the agonizing pain Connor feels now that his own lungs are ravaged by disease. There are other chilling passages revealing that Connor does indeed have the making of a cruel killer. But... Enter Olivia Brown, his tool to get at Tildesey. As much as I tried not to believe that this mousy, uninteresting character would play a major role in the story she will. And she will capture Connor's heart is a very strange way.
|1st paperback edition, rather scarce|
The robe came off her shoulders in the struggle, and she lay against him, breathing hard, her face flushed, her eyes very bright with an emotion entirely new to her. [...] "Teach me, darling. Teach me..."
With one arm occupied, he raised the other and snapped off the bluelight.But having dispensed with the mandatory (and censored) lovemaking scenes Coffman returns to the story. I kept hoping for Connor to return to his former vigilante mode. But it was too late; he was changed. Olivia had captured his heart so to speak. He tries to continue in the role of Nemesis, but his newfound persona and his new way of seeing life have so altered him that he cannot carry out his plans. Connor has changed so much that it has affected his artwork. His illustrations which used to depict the darker aspects of people, revealing their hidden Mr. Hyde, now show his subjects in a sunnier light.
Even prior to his transformation from killer to lover Connor found it difficult to be a murderer. He abandoned one of his plans to kill the arsonist and later the man, drunk from two bottles of brandy, knocks over a lamp in his home, sets his apartment ablaze, and dies a fitting but entirely accidental death. Fate stepped in and did the job where Connor failed. Fate and coincidence reign supreme in this book just like something Harry Stephen Keeler would write, but without his trademark brand of absurd humor.
This disappointed me. I bought the book not knowing anything about Coffman. When I got home I discovered in Hubin's Crime Fiction Bibliography that she was primarily a Gothic Romance writer with titles in her prolific output like Curse of the Island Pool, The House at Sandalwood, Night at Sea Abbey, and an entire series named after Lucifer Cove, a town where witchcraft held sway over its inhabitants and the Devil seduced women. I thought after reading the first few chapters that Coffman was trying to do something very different from a Gothic. The tone was truly dark, sinister and misanthropic. Connor had all the makings of an anti-hero out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. But then there was Olivia. How could I be as naive as she was and believe that she wouldn't hook up with Connor? Live and learn.
There is an interesting subplot that will play a crucial role in the violent finale when Coffman at last returns to her original theme of justice and retribution. A serial killer who preys on people with physical handicaps and poor health is on the loose (The Spiral Staircase, anyone?). He manages through a series of identity changes to escape each time and - just like Tildesey - makes his murders look like accidents. Tildesey is attracted to this killer and goes out of his way to find him for his own vengeful purposes. Connor, you may remember, is in the final throes of tuberculosis.
The beginning of the book, Connors' first encounter with the arsonist, and the finale are the best parts of A Few Fiends to Tea. I could've done without all the romance novel balderdash. Coffman could've created a true crime novel about the urge to kill that resides deep within most of us given the proper circumstances. She's a competent writer, often insightful, sometimes surprisingly good, one who could've easily eschewed all the romance novel trappings. But she knew her audience and she couldn't disappoint or shock them too deeply, I guess. To have done so might have been career suicide back in the heyday of old-fashioned romance novels.