Friday, April 27, 2018

FFB: The Evil Wish - Jean Potts

THE STORY: The Knapp sisters are planning to murder their domineering physician father who is hoping to marry his much younger nurse assistant and then disinherit his daughters. Should the doctor's plan come to fruition the two sisters will be forced to leave the only home they have ever known and give up a comfortable life. The very day the murder is to take place, however, Dad and Pam the nurse both perish in a car wreck. The Evil Wish (1962) -- as Jean Potts reminds us in the epigraph that precedes the story -- is most evil to the wisher, some words of wisdom she quotes from the Greek poet Hesiod. Marcia, the elder sister, extends that thought to a troubling, haunting reality when she tells Lucy that their father has tricked them once again. "Cheating us out of what we were primed to do, and so here we are with a leftover murder on our hands." How they deal with this burden of guilt for a crime they never actually committed is told in a unnerving tale of cat and mouse with deceit and betrayal lurking around every corner of their home.

THE CHARACTERS: Marcia and Lucy are compelling portraits of two sisters clearly devoted to one another and yet at odds with each other. They are also described as opposites in both physical attractiveness and psychological make-up. Typically for Potts she describes these women with a huge dollop of irony. Lucy is the radiant beauty of the two but she's also socially awkward, emotionally stunted, and dangerously neurotic. Marcia, on the other hand, is darkly attractive, cynical, outspoken and a bit too protective of her younger sister. Since their youth the two have engaged in a game of eavesdropping that has made them privy to their father's secrets. An architectural anomaly in the basement, situated directly below his doctor's office, has allowed the sisters to listen in on conversations. They have continued to do this into adulthood. Their surreptitious behavior will recur throughout the novel and have dire consequences for both. What they never realize is that other people who live and work in the house have also discovered this ideal place to listen in on conversations while never being seen.

Most interesting about this book is that there does not seem to be a real protagonist the reader can root for while antagonists are plentiful. Lucy and Marcia may be presented as the central characters but neither is truly likeable or sympathetic. In effect they are a duo of anti-heroines similar to the men one finds in a Patricia Highsmith novel. While there may be some elements of pathos about Lucy's fragile mental state one can never truly side with her plight. Marcia comes across as the more wily of the sisters and yet she too will be revealed to be as sinister as the two men the women find themselves at the mercy of over the course of the novel.

Original painting for the ACE G-541 reprint
(Artist uncredited)
The menacing handyman Hansen is as vile a villain as those found in Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Just like an old-fashioned stage melodrama baddie Hansen, an embittered employee who never felt appreciated by the Knapps, is someone you want to throw rotten vegetables at and boo and hiss whenever he enters the stage. In Potts' frequent use of unusual animal imagery Hansen is likened to a slovenly bear "rigged out in men's khaki work pants and shirt" who "shambles" his way through the house grunting and mumbling his resentful complaints.

In contrast to Hansen there is C. Gordon ("Call me Chuck. Everybody else does.") Llewellyn, a portrait photographer, interested in Pam the nurse's personal belongings left behind in her office. Chuck is is first described as a "bouncy, phoney guy, trying to seem younger than he was." He's also interested in leasing out Dr. Knapp's office if he can successfully cajole and manipulate the sisters into meeting his demands. But does he have an ulterior motive? When he finds Pam's diary why does he refuse to allow the sisters to read what's written inside? His sporting manner and affable charm mask a darker core and hidden motives. Chuck's presence sets Lucy on edge and sends her easily triggered morbid imagination into a frenzy of paranoid fantasies. Marcia is leery of Chuck, but she treats him with kid gloves.

Lucy's unfortunate obsession with the disposal of an old gas heater is not easily forgotten by Hansen who was entrusted to get rid of it quickly after the two deaths. She alternates between fretting about what Hansen knows and obsessing about where Chuck has hidden Pam's diary.  Either man might be able to expose the failed plot to do in her father. Growing suspicions of foul play surrounding the car accident lead to a battle of wits between the two men and two women as they attempt to outguess and out maneuver one another. And it won't end well for anyone.

The cast is rounded out by two quirky, gossipy neighbors who rent rooms on the second floor of the house. Each woman is a pet owner and they frequently are seen trotting out with their dogs, one of which is dressed in outfits that match its owner. Mrs. Sully and Mrs. Travers (aka "La Traviata" so dubbed for her large physique and grandiose manner) are clearly objects of ridicule, but also exist oddly as the two voices of reason in this household of fear, paranoia and scheming. Ironically, as grotesque and foolish as they are painted the two neighbors appear to be the only characters who see things clearly yet as loudly as they speak no one will pay them any attention.

INNOVATIONS:  Potts' ingenuity lies in the exploration of evil deeds not carried out and the festering remains of criminality that never come to fruition. To say that the novel is merely about the guilty consciences of these two sisters is to undermine its complexity. Take for example, the scene where Marcia executes a caterpillar by whacking it in two with a trowel:
Absently she scuffed some crumbs of dirt over the caterpillar. One of God's creatures. All right; but so were roses, and you had to make a choice. You had to accept the fact that some of God's creatures were no good. The law of rose-preservation, as basic as the law of self preservation.
The ease with which Marcia so callously and brutally severs the bug in two is mentioned repeatedly after this scene.  Potts' has created that resounding image as a reminder of how that evil wish has corrupted Marcia, how strong that desire to carry out violence is not only much easier for her but almost necessary.

QUOTES: "Yeah, but if Lucy planned it... It must do something to you, to plan a thing like that. You know what I mean? It's like you've crossed a line or something, and you can't ever get back to what you were before."

After finding a photo of Dr. Knapp and Pam: "Who's the guy?" Mr. Llewellyn asked, and she could not speak. She did not have to; she had one of those expressive faces, and that was Mr. Llewellyn's business, noticing faces.

Fear. How strange to live with it, get used to it, even thrive on it. It was like a fever running in her, sharpening her perceptions and quickening her to an abnormal animation. How strange, how different from other fears. [...] Instead of the old abject helplessness, she had a feeling of zest, sometimes even of power.

EASY TO FIND? This one looks good. Published in both the UK and the US The Evil Wish was also reprinted in the US twice in two different paperback editions. My search of the most popular bookselling sites turned up a little under 20 copies of the book in various editions. Of all of these versions the most common copies found are in the Ace Books (G-541) paperback, most of them reasonably priced. Happy hunting!


  1. Replies
    1. You would like this writer very much, Patti. She shares with you so many observations about the dark sides in family relationships. You ought to look for her books. Her plotting grows ever richer and stronger the more she wrote. This book falls in her mid career. Potts is the rare crime writer who is also an excellent mainstream novelist. Her books feature crime, but are difficult to pigeonhole in the various subgenres we so often find ourselves sorting the many different writers. I think she's better than Millar and Armstrong who get more credit for pioneering this type of domestic suspense. Potts, however, was more trenchant and original in how she works crime into her books.

      I have many more Jean Potts reviews in the works. Also, I'm advising Greg Shepard of Stark House on Potts book. He hopes to get her back into print. Cross your fingers!

  2. Both of the Jean Potts books that you have reviewed sound good. I will have to look harder for copies. And I look forward to more reviews.

  3. I've read only one book of hers, Death of a Stray Cat, but it was an impressive one both in terms of character and plotting. It's my long-held view that the Fifties were a Golden Age of their own as pertains to crime fiction, and Potts was one of its shining stars. A revival is long overdue.

  4. Your excellent review sold me, John. Now, if only at least some of these books were in e-format!