Friday, November 18, 2011

FFB: A Few Fiends to Tea - Virginia Coffman

Imagine this if you will: you are a successful writer of Gothic and historical romances and you have dabbled in other genres as well like the western novel. Now you want to write a full out crime novel about murder vigilante style. So you dream up a character who is dying of a terminal disease, who has dreams of a career as an artist but who sold out to be a commercial cartoonist, and is disgusted with a news story of a wife killer who managed to be acquitted for murder. Think you can write a suspenseful cat and mouse thriller without resorting to the usual romance novel trappings? Virginia Coffman almost pulls it off. It’s something like a mad combination of the basic idea of Dexter (vigilante killings of murderers who escaped the law) minus the sociopathic pathology. Saddled with the lamentable title A Few Fiends to Tea (1967) it was probably attracting an audience that expected something far more genteel and “veddy British.” But it's one of the few Belmont original paperbacks to receive two editions so it must've sold very well for the third tier publisher. It’s far from cozy and down right nasty. If only Coffman managed to escape her Gothic Romance past the book might be something of a minor classic in the genre.

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
Of course there are multiple obligatory love scenes with this naive and dull woman who pines for Connor. He is dark, handsome, dangerous. He lies to her and misleads her into thinking he is a spy for the British government. She is willing to help him spy on his victims, gather information, all because she loves the thrill of it all and she deeply loves him. There is a scene where she accidentally seduces him in the most awkward manner way ending with these embarrassing lines:
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.


  1. I vaguely remember reading Virginia Coffman books once upon a time, John. When I was a romance reader par excellence. :)

    I still love a good romance story. But I'm fussy about the storyline, and the writing must be top notch.

    Coffman's name really does ring a bell.

    Great review, as usual. :)

  2. Her writing is well done here. It was just jarring to include the romance novel subplot in a book that had such a dark tone where death and murder were omnipresent. I really liked a lot of what she was talking about in this book: unpunished criminals, retribuiton, justice gone wrong, how the mind of a killer works. She's a intriguing enough writer for me to seek out at least one of her Gothic novels - maybe one of the Lucifer Cove books since I intend to write about witchcraft in the detective and crime novel next year for Bev's challenge. I'd like to see what Coffman does when writing in her comfort zone. Under a few male pseudonyms she wrote a couple of stand-alone crime novels. I suspect they are more suspense (as in this case) rather than detection.

  3. It's possible she wrote this to be a gothic romance and eventually realized it was getting too dark for the genre and tried to salvage it with the vigilante plot-line. Like Yvette, I used to be much more of a romance reader and vaguely remember Coffman's name. What's interesting is to note how many women who currently write crime/mystery/thriller fiction started out writing gothics, romantic-suspense, and even out-and-out bodice-ripping romances (for example, Cathleen Coulter and Heather Graham); or, like Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, go back and forth between genres.