The Doctor’s Wife, Fiona Sussman’s fourth novel, is a murder story set on Auckland’s North Shore. Sussman is no stranger to crime writing: her novel The Last Time We Spoke — a gritty exploration of rural violence and prison life — won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award.
This new book seems a world away from the farmstead at the heart of The Last Time We Spoke. Stan, Carmen, Austin and Tibbie are middle-aged, middle-class friends whose lives in Browns Bay are fraught with the usual mid-life complications — infidelity, worries about money, jealousy. One couple is wealthy but unable to have children, while the other has teenage sons but far less income. They meet up to eat dinners that feature a ‘pear and blue cheese starter with toasted walnuts on top,’ with ‘the men talking cars, and Carmen commenting like a true journalist on some parliamentary gaffe.’
Austin is a doctor: he and his elegant wife Tibbie have been close with Carmen for over 30 years, since they were teenagers, ‘Friends forever scrawled in their high-school leaving book’. Carmen’s husband, Stan, is ‘a rather late addition to an already tight’ group and regarded for some time as an unwelcome disruption. Austin, in particular, does not like disruptions, in part because he struggles with memories of a traumatic upbringing: ‘Was this going to be his forever school or would his mum and her new squeeze pack up sticks and move town again?’
For the past twenty-four years Stan has remained at Carmen’s side, as a genial and ‘pretty consistent’ presence. Austin sees him as an ‘agreeable coaster. Not easily riled. Not easily enthused.’ Stan seems to be a ‘man without ambition or agenda’— unlike the more tightly wound Austin, who dresses in a uniform of ‘business shirt and chinos’, all prim perfectionism. Stan eats lasagne in front of the TV and wears a T-shirt and jeans to his job teaching art, clothing choices that make Austin ‘feel itchy and unsettled’. Success in life, Austin believes, is ‘about playing the part, about actively shaping each day. Live the life you aspire to achieve.’
Life and death, not simply contrasting ways of living, form the novel’s initial lines of tension. After the ‘abstract diagnosis of brain cancer’, Carmen is very unwell and Stan feels as though their life together is disintegrating. For the first time he sees what judgy Austin sees: a rundown house and chaotic garden. ‘Leggy blades of grass licked mould-blackened bricks. The unravelling went on — a listing letterbox, dead-dry hydrangeas, sagging roof guttering, the cracked porch tiles.’ Their house mirrors Carmen’s physical decline. Reuben, one of their sons, describes his mother’s formerly pixie-ish face as ‘puffy and spongy like bread dough’, and ‘her Halle Berry hair [now] … a crazy paving of pale scalp and prickly brown bristles.’
The changes are not only physical. Tibbie, believing she is ‘going to lose her best friend’, starts to feel ‘strangely alone in the friendship. As if all the little changes that had crept into their relationship over the past months were kept on a running tab, and now, out of the blue, had been tallied.’
But the novel’s domestic drama takes a much more sinister turn when a woman’s body is found at the bottom of a cliff. The dead woman is the doctor’s wife of the book’s title — Tibbie, not Carmen — and the story becomes a police procedural. The novel employs multiple points of view, deftly handled, and the necessary switch halfway through to the perspective of detective Ramesh Bandara will please readers looking for a classic, whodunnit-style mystery. Connections build between the disparate perspectives and our suspicions move from one character to the other.
Sussman was a doctor before she was a novelist and is able to draw on this expertise for the medical aspects of the story: this lends weight to the key story of one character’s cancer diagnosis, which may otherwise have felt gimmicky. However, when faced with the task of sustaining an entire novel based on the central mystery, the author fills chapters with an excess of description rather than deeper character development — so much detail that readers may think they’re vital clues. We know that Austin is meticulous, but this characterisation starts to feel one-note when we’re told he ‘ran the dirty dishes under hot water, then packed the dishwasher — knives on the top shelf, forks facing down in the cutlery basket, big plates at the back, side plates to the front.’ Is this just more dogged showing-not-telling, or a crucial clue to some dishwasher-related element of the murder?
It’s hard to know in a novel that is sometimes over-written — a pōhutukawa is ‘denuded of its crimson blooms’ — and employs similes to excess. Parts of Ramesh’s point-of-view sections are a cliché pile-up: ‘It was easy to get blinkered in the job, especially when on the home straight. And even more so after thinking you’d crossed the finish line.’ This is frustrating in an otherwise readable novel with an intriguing plot.
Eliot, one of Austin’s patients, is a young autistic man who discovers Tibbie — ‘the dead lady with long red hair’— and is traumatised. His point of view is plausible and particular: to Eliot, one of the joggers near the cliff looks ‘quite a lot like Mr Roy, his former woodwork teacher — Golden Retriever eyes and ears like big, kind commas.’ But in common with a number of the characters in the novel, Eliot is a familiar trope: the loner with a heart of gold who doesn’t know his own strength.
Another character who may feel over-familiar to crime readers is Ramesh, the struggling detective, who has just been through a divorce. After anxiety-related sick leave, he is pursuing the case (of course) against the boss’s wishes, desperate to prove himself. At one point, Sussman even seems to be winking at us via the police chief: ‘This is not some cosy murder mystery, Bandara, where the least likely person in the village turns out to be the culprit … You’ve got the quirky young lad with a supposedly superhuman memory. The woman with a brain tumour. Now, her financially strained husband. Soon the whole damned city will be under suspicion. You’re all over the show, man. Give me something concrete.’
By the time the novel reveals its second death, the story feels as though it’s winding down. When the perspective switches to Ramesh — to avoid revelations from our cast of suspects — readers have to wait for the detective to figure out as much as we already know. The pace suffers, and so does the tension.
Still, seasoned crime readers who enjoy distinguishing clue from red herring will consider this a solid attempt at a classic psychological thriller. Despite its clunky moments, The Doctor’s Wife tells a compelling story set in a recognisable Auckland, and Sussman’s twisting-and-turning plot demonstrates her respect for the crime genre.