Friday, June 11, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Bedeviled - Libbie Block

THE STORY: The malicious, exploitative and deeply disturbed wife of Willem Himbert, symphony conductor, becomes the target of Elizabeth Beel's undying animosity when the wife begins to concoct a fantasy in which she is the object of John Maicey's desire.  John is Elizabeth's boyfriend, perhaps soon-to-be husband, but Coca has other plans for the promising composer. Elizabeth's deep seated hatred is further fueled by the fact that she knows that Coca has infiltrated herself into the romantic lives of other musicians who at one time were Himbert's proteges.  She will not see John's chances at fame in the music world destroyed by Coca's petty and devious scheming.  She plans Coca's murder in her head almost nightly, various methods and means, until she doesn't know the difference between her fantasies and reality.  When Coca ends up dead Elizabeth is unsure if she carried out her murderous plan and turns detective to find out if it was she --or someone else -- who put a permanent end to Coca's twisted soap opera-like machinations.

THE CHARACTERS: Bedeviled (1947) consists of a relatively small cast of characters which allows for a claustrophobic atmosphere to build up in this melodramatic microcosm of musical composition and performance. Two couples --  Willem/Coca and Elizabeth/John -- are almost all we need in this story. Elizabeth, our narrator for much of the novel, provides  us with detailed but often skewed perceptions of the other characters for we can only "see" what she sees and reports to us.  Consequently, Coca appears to be a wily vixen reminiscent of the kind of villainesses you love to hate from the bygone era of night time soaps. The archetype of this superbitch is probably Alexis Carrington from the US TV show Dynasty.  Block's talent is in presenting us Coca as seen only through Elizabeth's eyes -- eyes that may be hateful but also part of a troubled mind. As much as Elizabeth wants to believe that Coca is some sort of female demon we never really know if she is exaggerating the truth  There are scenes with John in which he defends the conductor's wife and dismisses her attentions as juvenile flirting. So we are left to decide for ourselves whether or not Coca is the truly wicked woman Elizabeth would have us think she is.

Part of Elizabeth's trouble is that her love for John is intertwined with her desire to see him succeed as the "new discovery" of modern symphonic music.  The conflict arises out of the fact that Himbert can bring John much needed exposure by performing his works but Coca is included as part of that package.  Elizabeth cannot break John's relationship with Himbert and therefore she cannot break his relationship with Coca; the two are inextricable. She allows everything to take place simply because she wants John to succeed in his career.  This is the kind of supposed self-sacrifice done in the name of love that we keep finding in post-WW2 mainstream bestselling novels like the infuriating soap opera plot in Stella Dallas, the stereotype of the martyr mother, and crime infused melodramas like Mildred Pierce. 

We also get Elizabeth's perceptions that Willem Himbert is surreally devoted to Coca, in love with her in a way that seems to defy common sense. She finds it hard to believe that Himbert cannot see through his wife's scheming and deceit and her dangerous manipulation of his own love for her.  But is Coca really as thoroughly bad as Elizabeth sees her? Despite all the examples she reports of Coca's destructive plots and the careful construction of possible secret love affairs with Himbert's proteges and his intense jealousy of men who show the slightest interest in his younger,  strikingly beautiful wife we never really know if what Elizabeth is telling us is truth or a twisted interpretation of the truth.  Not until the introduction of a character late in the novel do we see Coca for what she truly is.

INNOVATIONS: Intriguingly, Block has inserted non-first person narrative sections into the story in which we are allowed to view the cast from a distant omniscient observer.  The sections with Elizabeth as narrator are labeled with the chapter heading "Inside" while the other sections are labeled "Outside" and there is one transitional chapter titled "Wayside" in which we get to see the murder happen. What appears at first to be a cleverly constructed inverted detective novel following the murderer's thoughts and deeds unexpectedly shifts in this pivotal "Wayside" section into a whodunnit. Then Elizabeth slowly adopts the role of a very reluctant sleuth when she tries to prove that she is not the killer.

Similar to The Evil Wish by Jean Potts Bedeviled is a fascinating portrait of a woman with a desire to murder who is left with a criminal plan that is unfulfilled. Those who have read Pott's brilliant book know that the characters who had a plan to kill ended up carrying out far worse criminal deeds having been infected with the mark of Cain, so to speak. But what happens to that murderous drive in Elizabeth's case in this book written more than a decade earlier?  She is tortured for much of the book truly believing that she did stab Coca to death but has no memory of the act. Even her sole confessor (who is also her employer) finds it hard to believe that she is anything but guilty.  She is so confused by the haunting blend of reality and fantasy that she often refers to herself in the third person, a classic example of dissociative behavior, perhaps the product of a guilty conscience, and one of the more compelling and prescient devices Block employs to add a sophisticated level of psychological insight to her gripping story.

QUOTES:  "How does one solve a murder? All the clue hunting and the rationalization seem so easy when I read mystery books [...] But this is a strange murder to solve. As though a bloodhound were sent to follow a long weary, and devious trail, with the full expectation that at the end he would tree -- himself!"

"I don't want to be different. I don't want to be a murderer. In this strange new afterward which will cost me my life and which has already cost me John, who is the very reason for my life, I can no longer understand the woman I used to be, the woman who fondled the idea of murder like a doll, dressing it in one bizarre scheme after another until the plaything took life and destroyed its keeper."

"I planned murder so many times, that like an automaton, I committed it. I have destroyed myself. And, my God, I am afraid. I am a coward. I don't want to die."

THE AUTHOR: Libbie Block (1910-1972) was born in Colorado, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father was a dentist who practiced in Denver.  She met her husband, an executive at Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, in Los Angeles, California where she lived for much of her life and where her two children were born. The author of over 250 short stories and three novels many of Block's writings were adapted into movies or TV shows.  

Labelling this post "First Books" maybe a misnomer and certainly a bit misleading for Bedeviled was her first crime novel, but not her debut as a novelist.  Her real debut book, Wild Calendar (1945) with a soap opera-like plot of a girl from Denver who marries a rich man, moves to New York, then leaves him to raise her child on her own, was made into the movie Caught starring Barbara Bel Geddes in one of her first starring roles opposite James Mason and Robert Ryan as the men in her life. One of her short stories was made into Pin-Up Girl as a vehicle for Betty Grable to show off the dancer/singer's talents. Two other stories were adapted for a couple of television anthology series:  "The Night the Doorbell Rang" appeared in season eight on The Loretta Young Show and "Last Concerto" was on Cosmopolitan Theatre in 1951. Several of her short stories were collected and edited by her husband Patrick Duggan and published under the title No Man Tells Everything (1959).


  1. Another great review and biography of a neglected author! I always enjoy the detective work you do to put the writers you feature in context. By coincidence I actually watched the 1949 film CAUGHT the night before you posted this. Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay adaptation, and even if the story is melodrama, it's got its share of humor and wit.

    1. Wow! Synchronicity and coincidences abound. Makes me think there truly are mysterious powers at work connecting us all in the vintage mystery novel blogosphere.

      If you ever stumble across a copy of Bedeviled I highly recommend you buy it and read it. This book and Madame Baltimore are two of the best crime novels by women (or anyone!) I've read this year. Complex and filled with insights decades ahead of the time in which the books were written. Smart and compassionate women writers are the best writers to (re-)discover.

    2. An enticing recommendation! I will certainly keep an eye lifted for Libbie Block's books. She's the type of author whose books might still sneak onto a seller's listings at a modest price, unlike say John Rhode's or Henry Wade's, which now regularly post on eBay for lots of $$$ even in later paperback editions. And I'm always happy to try a new and recommended writer. Cheers -- J.

  2. John - Thank you - you continue to impress with your ability to highlight forgotten GAD authors. This one sounds fun and as soon as I can find the great looking Dell mapback, I will purchase it straight away. If this compares well to the wonderful, The Evil Wish, by Jean Potts, that's high praise indeed.

  3. Sounds fairly enticing. I'll have to add this one, and the Jean Potts book, to my shopping list.

  4. Looks good, but may have to whittle down the pile first. I've a Celia Freeman book I've been meaning to read.

    I've read the 1st Inspector Patton, Face Value by Roger Ormerod, very enjoyable. He has a very easy style to read but his plotting is complex, good characters and I like the way he introduces information and moves the plot along. There is one glaring plot hole that casts a shadow over the future books, when finding a missing person there would be financials etc. but it didn't spoil the book and I have got the next book/s in the series (I've gone kindle due to space.). Thanks for pointing out this author, very much appreciated. Wayne.