Originally published in 2017
Everyone agreed Evelyn Marsh wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they didn’t count on a mother’s ferocity, nor the fury of a woman scorned. Written in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley), Evelyn Marsh begins with the provocative statement that “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.” The rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in that first line. A psychological character study, it’s a why-done-it and how-done-it, instead of a who-done-it.
A lot of the elements used are familiar but Clemens combines them skillfully and executes them well.
Evelyn Marsh begins with the title character accidentally committing what is described as a murder. In actual fact she has unintentionally killed a gopher that was menacing her garden. While that may read like the literary equivalent of a clickbait headline, the use of the word ‘murder’ is both clever and useful as it tells us a lot about Evelyn as a character and her values.
This is important because Evelyn Marsh is, at its heart, a character study. What it is principally interested in and what it teases so effectively in its first line is how a woman can go from crying over a dead animal and insisting on giving it a burial to committing a second, deliberate murder. The victim’s identity is unknown both to the reader and to Evelyn at this point in the novel so we follow along as we see her interact with other characters, see potential triggers and situations being created and wonder exactly what will be the moment that will send her over the edge. In short, we are looking an example of the whydunit style of inverted mystery.
Looked at it from the outside, Evelyn Marsh’s life is enviable. She lives in a gorgeous home, her husband earns a comfortable salary from the law practice he took on from her father meaning she wants for little and she has recently begun to exhibit and sell her artwork – something that brings her great pleasure, even if the financial rewards of that so far have been relatively modest. She however perceives that life slightly differently, particularly her marriage which has become cold since the children left home.
In the early chapters of the novel, Clemens carefully establishes each aspect of her life and several of the relationships that are most important to her. The reader may perceive some familiar storytelling seeds being sewn that suggest how the story will take its turn but because there are several such strands, it is not obvious which will be the ultimate trigger. Nor are those threads as predictable as they initially appear – Clemens overlaps some of those storylines, leading them to impact on each other which pushes the work into some less expected directions as Evelyn plans and executes her murder and responds to an investigation.
Unusually for this sort of story, I found the act of murder to be the least compelling aspect of the book. It is, of course, necessary and it has been planned but after chapters of building anticipation, the act itself happens quickly, as does the staging of the scene, and before you know it we have moved onto the investigative portion of the book. This is not a bad thing however because it is this final section of the book that feels the most engaging and interesting.
Where the early part of the book dealt with familiar ideas and story beats, albeit presenting them with twists, this final section feels like it is doing its own thing. It manages to do so with a focus on character with each new development seeming to probe and illustrate different aspects of Evelyn’s personality and we see her undergo a sort of transformation as a result.
Having diverged from the more familiar plot points and beats of the inverted crime story by this point, we find ourselves in rather unexpected territory about just how each of the plot threads will be resolved. I found this to be quite exciting and enjoyed following the path of the investigation and trying to predict how the story might end. I was not disappointed with that conclusion which not only felt interesting on a character level, it also felt like a satisfying final statement on the book’s central themes.
Overall I enjoyed Evelyn Marsh a lot and found it to be a clever psychological exploration of how a woman comes to commit a murder. While many of the ingredients will be familiar, Clemens combines them in unexpected ways to produce a character-driven story that exceeded my expectations.