You won’t find any of Susan Ertz’s books in print these days – in fact, a quick search on Amazon returns only secondhand copies, the most recent of which was published in 1985. She was actively writing between 1923 and 1976, which is an impressively long career, and one of her books was adapted for the cinema, In The Cool of the Day, in 1960, starring Peter Finch and Jane Fonda. She also wrote a science fiction novel in 1935, Woman Alive, but I’m not aware of it being claimed by the genre. I’ve yet to find a full bibliography online – the one on Ertz’s entry on Wikipedia lists twenty-two books but doesn’t include the one I read, Devices & Desires, which was published in 1972.
To be honest, on the strength of Devices & Desires, I doubt I’ll be exploring Ertz’s oeuvre any further. While I had a positive experience with my first Storm Jameson (see here), I can’t say the same for my first Susan Ertz. It’s not that Devices & Desires is a bad book, or a badly-written book. But it’s set in the early 1970s – there’s even a mention of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and feels like it’s set in the 1930s. It makes for a disconnect that completely spoils the reading experience.
The Gorlans – Professor, his mother, young nanny Stephanie, and three young boys – are travelling from the US to the UK for a well-earned holiday. They are travelling by ship – did people still do that in 1970? And they will be staying in a rented country house near Oxford. Also aboard the same liner is John Van Bolen, the young son of an American millionaire whose estranged British wife owns the house the Gorlands have rented. John is accompanied by Robinson, Van Bolen’s African-American chauffeur. The two groups become aware of each other during the voyage, and once ensconced in their holiday home the Gorlands continue to seem more of the Van Bolens. John’s mother, Rachel, is in a relationship with French expat architect Marcel, but the two cannot marry because Rachel’s husband won’t give her a divorce. Also, young John doesn’t like Marcel and refuses to be the son of divorced parents. Stephanie has fallen in love with Professor Gorland, but he doesn’t return the sentiment – in fact, he’s attracted to Rachel. And Robinson has fallen in love with Oriana, the West Indian maid of the local vicar and his wife.
Then, as usually seems the case in such stories, tragedy strikes. John and the oldest Gorlan boy plot a swimming race across the lake. Since they’ve been told not to do this, they drug Robinson, who is minding them. But the youngest Gorlan boy escapes his grandmother’s care, wanders down to the lake and falls in. And nearly drowns. But Robinson, knowing that John will be blamed for the near-death as it was John who drugged Robinson, commits suicide in order to take the blame himself.
Devices & Desires really is horribly old-fashioned. Robinson reads like a stereotypical African-American from the first half of the twentieth century. The American characters come across as somewhat less-wealthy Rockefellers, and the English characters are all terribly upper class. They talk about “fetching the car”, everyone has servants, and one character even has a small flat filled with expensive paintings in a chic area of London. You could move the entire story forward in time fifty years and the only thing that would need changing is the reference to men landing on the Moon.
Devices & Desires‘s prose is by no means bad. On the contrary, it’s a good deal better than you’ll find in most twenty-first century commercial fiction. And it’s clearly the product of an established writer with a decades-long career. But it also seems to be the product of a writer who is decades out of touch. And that, for me, completely ruined my enjoyment of the book.