Tibbie, Carmen, and Austin have been friends for years. Tibbie and Austin partnered up, and when Carmen married Stan, he eventually blended into the group. Then Carmen and Stan had twin boys, who Austin and Tibbie dote on. The four are a unit, having the odd tiff, but solid. Then malignant cells, a forgotten cell phone, and an obsessive young man in the neighbourhood, smash open the façade of civility – exposing what churns beneath.
A body is found in the water at Browns Bay, Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland – is it there through accident, suicide, or murder? The more we find out about the people in the wide circle around the victim, more and more motives and suspects are revealed. Tibbie and Austin are well-off, she comes from a wealthy family and works voluntarily for various charities, he is a popular general practitioner. Carmen, Stan, and the boys just get by, he is a tutor at an arts centre, she a freelance writer.
I was glad I knew absolutely nothing about the story as I read, not having even read the blurb on the back cover. I guessed the first two mysteries – whose was the body that was discovered? What was behind some emerging aberrant behaviour of one of the characters? But they were like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle, and I became gripped with wanting to understand the picture that was emerging. And that picture was full of complex and damaged characters.
The curiosity is raised that awful events in childhood can result in life-long damage, hidden fears, and insecurities – or they can lead to a determination to steer a steady path. The two detectives on the case, Bandara and Stark, both have tragedies in their histories. And now they both feel excluded from their peers – but one has become empathetic, while the other behaves in a way that attracts the slur “ice queen”.
The Doctor’s Wife deals with the trauma of losing a loved one, either through death or through illness-induced alterations to their character, and the stress of caring for the chronically ill. Eliot, a lifelong patient of Austin’s, and the only son of solo mum Andrea, has diabetes, is a whiz with numbers, is conscientious to a fault, and has the unguarded manner of a child. There are those who think if Eliot were to die it would be a release for his mother, a point of view his mother would in no way understand.
And when suspects line up, and one of them is going to die soon anyway, there are others who can’t help but think if the terminal patient took the fall, wouldn’t that get everyone else off the hook, and not make much difference to them? Things spin further and further out of control for the affected families, and they start seriously falling apart. And then there are the children: having to deal with their family disintegrating, and the cruel business of navigating school when rumours are rife.
The Doctor’s Wife is well plotted, leading to a cathartic reveal, which once again shows the complexity of human nature – with the perpetrator appalled at the enormity of what they have done. The mystery is solved, some characters are going to be able to continue, others not. The natural tragedies and the crimes have passed and taken their toll. The reader is left with a lovely bit of hope, and the knowledge that Fiona Sussman is a great #YeahNoir author, and a great observer of human nature.