“Suppose you loved a man with all your heart and he, while terribly ill wanted you to marry him, thinking you were another girl – Would you do it?”
That is the totally ridiculous question that leads the front panel summary of Substitute Sweetheart by Priscilla Wayne a.k.a. Besse Toulouse Sprague. I mean, who hasn’t been in that very situation?
Substitute Sweetheart was published in 1936 by John H. Hopkins & Son, Inc. It opens with a fashionable woman sitting on a plane and then explains how she got there through a flashback. The C.L.W. dust jacket art depicts our protagonist, Ruth Drayton, at the airport and in her new coat purchased for the trip ahead. My guess is that C.L.W. stands for Charles L. Wrenn, who illustrated other dust jackets for Hopkins around this time.
Ruth Drayton lives in Iowa and works as a clerk at a department store when one day, two strangers offer her employment that seems too good to be true. This isn’t the first novel reviewed on this blog where the heroine is offered a gig that pays suspiciously well with all expenses covered – and new outfits – for just the teensy task of pretending to be someone else and executing some kind of manipulative plan. Joseph and Clara Bradley will pay Ruth $500 dollars a week (according to an inflation calculator, that’s nearly $9k in 2018 currency) if she travels with them to Chicago and pretends to be the step-sister of a man who was recently in a car accident. His real step-sister is “in quarantine,” because that’s not suspicious at all. Like what happened in Blond Trouble, our protagonist accepts this shady proposition and then feels really good about her choices based on her new wardrobe.
Ruth’s actual brother Jerry scolds her over the phone not to take the job, but of course she does because otherwise Substitute Sweetheart wouldn’t be much a a story. When she gets there, the job is sketchier than even Jerry could have imagined. Joseph and Clara Bradley are criminals (and it’s revealed Clara Bradley once shot a dog for ruining her dress!) who have blackmailed a doctor into slowly poisoning their nephew in a plot to take his money since the hit-man they hired to drive him off the road didn’t kill him. The Bradleys keep Ruth locked up and monitor her every move. Their hired man accomplice, Pascoe, is incredibly creepy, like shudder-worthy creepy.
Jerry tracks the Bradleys down just as the blackmailed doctor gets cold feet about the plot, and there is a spectacular scene at the Bradley mansion where Joseph Bradley shoots the doctor, Ruth finally is able to phone the police, Pascoe disappears, and the Bradleys kidnap Jerry. The whole last fifth of Substitute Sweetheart is the plot’s resolution. Jerry saves the day all the way out in a remote Colorado cabin, and Pascoe and the Bradleys are finally brought to justice while Ruth quickly clears her name back in Chicago.
Pascoe’s unwanted affection towards Ruth isn’t the only sordid part of this love story. There’s the attempted murder scheme that makes up this novel’s plot, but there’s also the love interest, Jim Bradley. He doesn’t do much of anything for the span of the novel although to be fair, he’s also bedridden, temporarily blinded, and poisoned. I find it unsettling that he’s attracted to his step-sibling’s doppleganger, even though the book mentions by page sixteen that they’re not actually related. Jim claims at the end of the novel that he quickly knew Ruth wasn’t the real June, but she was similar enough to pass for June among the Bradley family inner circle. To make it even worse, the real June emerges at the end of the story… to be picked up by Ruth’s brother. What’s with these guys?
Copies of Priscilla Wayne’s works are available for purchase here.