OMG, it’s good. At least I think so. I couldn’t put it down. Twin Eagles Publishing has released their second V.M. Steele novel, The Scarred Wrists. V.M. Steele is another of Dion Fortune’s pen names. She published four novels as Steele. The books were looked down upon at the time, rejected as trivial and commonplace.
Richard Brzustowicz found himself drawn in when he went to the British Library during a research trip and read them. He writes about this experience in his Foreword. This novel was published in the same year as Fortune’s occult novel The Winged Bull, 1935, and Brzustowicz explores how similar themes are present—a young, vital woman meets a man suffering ill health both mentally and physically and brings both of them new life by their interactions. One has magical content, the other doesn’t, or at least not overtly.
Julian Pharmakos, who has named himself after the Greek scapegoat, must have a red head for a secretary (so he can pass her off as his sister) and hires young, innocent Patricia Stone. But Pat, or Coppernob as she is affectionately nicknamed, is an illegitimate child raised by the resentful husband of her mother who is also his wife, and has had to fight every day for a place in the family that dislikes her. Pat’s father kicks her out of the house when she disobeys him and marches off to her new job the next morning. Pharmakos takes her in, not as a lover, but to protect her.
It turns out he’s a recent convict, now working as a private detective with ties to Scotland Yard and many police chiefs in the area. If you suspect shades of Sherlock, you’re right. Pharmakos has made his home in a dilapidated warehouse, leaving the exterior in its disrespectful condition, but fixing one floor for his exquisitely decorated open-floor home. Fortune anticipates 21st century design here. Having spent so much time in solitary confinement, his nerves can’t stand anything close to walls or prison bars. There’s another floor to fix for Pat. The relationship develops from there.
Fortune’s experience and knowledge as a psychologist is very much in evidence in this novel. She reveals why Pharmakos is in such bad shape, showing an understanding of what is basically PTSD, and demonstrates how it should be treated. One can see why many in the 1930s would have rejected this novel as below Fortune since she was from an upper crust family. The novel deals with the criminal class, and paints such a vivid, realistic picture of the types to be found in this world, one wonders where Fortune got this expertise. It must have been from her practice as a psychologist.
Like her other occult novels, the energetics that play between this young, practical and down-to-earth woman and this artistic, highly sensitive, emotional man result in a transformation of them both. The dynamics of magic are at play, but not obviously so. Another similarity in many of the novels is the mix of classes. Pat is from a solid, middle-class family, but it turns out Pharmakos is an aristocrat. And not just any aristocrat. The family has given the heir the same first name for over 1,000 years. He’s a de Claire, a background he rejects until the very end. The ever-practical Pat thinks that if there is a coronet to be worn, well, she might as well wear it.
This somewhat mitigates the race and class consciousness of the time on display in the book. The novel also suffers from what we writers like to call the “narrative knot,” where the story is downloaded in big chunks at times. Pharmakos nervous breakdowns got to be a bit much at times, but none of that really slowed me down. I enjoyed every minute of it. You probably will, too.