While My Brother's Wife seems at first to be a well written yet unremarkable love triangle/whodunit addition to the noir pulps of the fifties, this short novel proves to be, much like the titular woman on the cover, much more than what appears on the surface.
The author of the book, named on the cover as Harry Davis, is actually Roberta "Betty" Elizabeth Sebenthall. An award winning poet, Sebenthall published more than a half dozen mystery crime novels under this and another male pseudonyms, Paul Kruger. Whether these pen names were chosen to separate her pulp fiction writing from her poetry, or forced on her by a publisher catering to a male-dominated market, her "undercover" writing of My Brother's Wife adds a biographical context to the work that can't be ignored. This is especially true when you consider that Sebenthall was writing during a period when there was more hide than her gender (she was buried in 1979 alongside her long-time partner Mary Locke, who died later the same year), adding a sub-textual dimension to the themes addressed in what would normally be a routine plot of desire and betrayal.
In My Brother's Wife, Lonnie returns home after an extended abstinence to visit his brother Blair, recently crippled in a car accident, and his bombshell wife, Felice. Things predictably turn sour as old rivalries and new covetous attractions flare up, only to be complicated by a mysterious death that leaves everyone suspect. Nothing really new for this genre, but it isn't the plot that sets this book apart as much as the approach. Even without knowing the true source of the work, there's an underlying sensitivity to the characters and situations, an attempt at empathy that is often lacking from other novels dealing with betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. In an interview, Sebenthall stated:
"In my poetry (which I regard as my serious work) I have not wanted to express my personal feelings and thoughts directly--this is, as so-called confessional poetry. I wanted, rather, to see myself and my personal experience as part of the larger life around me, to explore the extent to which I and others shared basic experience. At the same time, I did want to convey my own particular vision of life--a vision that has seemed bleak and even tragic to some people, but which I feel has never been a despairing one. I wanted to affirm that fact that life held much good, while not blinking the fact that it held much evil. I wanted to puncture some of the pretensions, hypocrisies and evasions we all tend to resort to, often quite unconsciously. On another level, I have been very concerned with metaphysics, with the various myths, religions and philosophical beliefs that (in my opinion) we human beings devise for shelter in what I see as a huge, indifferent and often terrifying universe."
This world view was not limited to her writing. After the typical confessional shootout climax of the novel, Sebenthall includes an epilogue that invites the reader to transcend the violence and emotional negativity that fueled the story with forgiveness, sympathy, and a universal acceptance of human nature. Sebenthall's poetic voice also finds a place in the narrative: "Ends flow into beginnings and life closes in as gently and surely around death as grass closes in on the bit of ground in which death lies." It is moments like this, glimpses at a depth and soul not commonly found in dime store thrillers, that make My Brother's Wife more than just a passable read.
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About the reviewer
S. Michael Wilson (smichaelwilson)
I am the editor and coauthor of Monster Rallyand the author of Performed by Lugosi. I am also a co-host of the wildly popular film review podcast MovieSucktastic. As a writer, … more