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.
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.
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.