The BOOKPRESS December 2000

Think Again

J. Robert Lennon

by Barbara Vine
Harmony, 2000.
392 pages, $24.00

    I would be very much surprised to find that there was someone else alive on this earth writing mysteries as good as Ruth Rendell’s. I realize that this kind of pronouncement causes readers to sharpen their claws, as they prepare to do battle in defense of Sue Grafton, or Sara Paretsky, or whomever, but I feel pretty comfortable standing behind it: Rendell is not hip, but she is steadfast, and ambitious, and is even getting better. At seventy, she has achieved almost everything there is to achieve as a mystery writer: she has won every award, every accolade, and has written something like fifty books, just about all of them worth reading. She has three distinctive modes of writing, and it has been said that she is, in fact, three novelists. Two of them are called Ruth Rendell, and the third is called Barbara Vine.
    Early in her career, Rendell became known for the first two of these modes. She wrote slim, deft crime novels, and short stories of the "twist" variety, a la O. Henry, albeit with a more overt kind of darkness. She also inaugurated, in 1965, a detective series, featuring the perennially middle-aged, always ugly, sometimes fat and sometimes thin Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and his right-hand man Inspector Mike Burden, a vain (though less so, lately) and conservative (also less so nowadays: Burden’s transformations are a motif that runs through the series) man of thirty-odd years. It is with the Wexford books that Rendell seems to have honed her plotting and characterization skills; they started out (in From Doon with Death) as unremarkable, if unusually compelling, British-style mysteries (Rendell is English), and have grown into masterpieces
of psychological complexity, inventive plotting, and authorial subterfuge.
    This last has become a Rendell trademark, especially with the Wexford series. If you were to read all her books in chronological order, you would notice a gradual change: the early books, while far from formulaic, do not bear excessive scrutiny on the reader’s part; it is possible, at some distance, to see where she is going. But Rendell has gotten trickier. Her books have grown longer, and thick with loose ends; plots have become more tangled, and in some cases, plot lines that appear inextricably connected prove to have nothing to do with one another. A late innovation in the Rendell ouevre could be called postmodern: she lures the reader into believing he has figured her out, and then (generally within ten pages) shows him to be mistaken. In other words, she plays on the reader’s confidence, allows him to believe that he is smarter than she is. He isn’t. She’ll do this half a dozen times in one book. Ah, you think, now I’ve got her, and you’re wrong, again and again.
    Rendell’s characters are equally susceptible to this trap; all of them, particularly Wexford, think they’ve got the thing solved at least once before they are proven wrong. What maddens and excites the reader is how plausible these false solutions are–any of them would do in a pinch as the ending of a less skillful mystery, and seem acceptably convincing. It isn’t until the real answer is revealed that we recognize the flaws of the fake ones, and are more than a bit embarrassed at our inferior deductive powers. A great scene comes at the end of The Veiled One, a terrific Wexford book that documents a murder in a shopping mall parking garage, in which Wexford runs through all the fake endings during a car ride with his detectives; each one seems like the true ending, until the next is described.
    As for Rendell’s killers, they are convincing and human: no monsters, no evil geniuses, no calculating predators cribbed from Hollywood. Rendell has no truck with cop-taunting serialists who prey on detectives’ fears and vanities. The puzzles the killers present are authentically inadvertent; these bad guys do not dangle rosetta stones. And in most cases, one body is plenty for Rendell, and even that body is sometimes in question: in one wonderful Wexford book, the only death turns out to have been accidental; in another, the identity of the victim is never discovered. She has no interest in propping up our curiosity with gimmicks.
    So what is she interested in? Houses. Most of the Vine books have a house at the center of them, a house someone loves, or hates, or where something terrible has happened or is about to happen. Gardens. People are buried in them, make love in them, fall from a great height into them. In my favorite Wexford book (I won’t tell you which), a flower is the clue that solves the crime. Class. Rendell’s characters are snobs; this is often their downfall, or a good part of it. Rendell loves the class system, loves to write about it, loves to point up its ridiculousness and make her players succumb to it. If I had to identify a fault of Rendell, it is her aggressive misanthropy; she has a tendency to make characters say and do vain and stupid things, apparently for the sole purpose of showing what fools they are. But vanity and stupidity indeed lead to crime, which is what these books are about.
    Rendell also puts a lot of faith in the power of sexual obsession. I don’t really buy it: sex is a powerful motivator, but not a very interesting one. As Vine, she tends to make sex work in tandem with other details of character (The House of Stairs is a good example); as Rendell, she sometimes falters (the unconvincing The Bridesmaid). This card does play fairly well in the Wexford books, in the form of Burden: his passionate emotions are forever in conflict with his puritan ethics (check out Some Lie and Some Die).
    But about Barbara Vine. In 1986, the first of (to date) nine Vine novels was published, A Fatal Inversion. It’s a good book. It is about families, about lineage and marriage and long-held secrets and, of course, class conflict; a bit of Bronté blood runs through it. It probably contains the best actual sentences this writer has written, and all the usual suspenseful Rendell fun. The eight that have followed have all been good as well (including the new one).
    Why the alias? The answer may lie in The House of Stairs, whose narrator is (a rare thing, in Rendell/Vine) a writer, a hack who pens adventure stories. She chalks her lack of ambition up to the fact that she may or may not have Huntington’s disease, which runs in her family:

I was right to produce twenty-five sexy, romantic, sensational adventure books in seventeen years, so that I could live those years in comfort. I was right not to struggle half-starved and alone in a rented room creating the literature I knew I could have created and on the dream of its being published one day in the sweet or paralyzed by-and-by. (Though in fact the gain was never as great as at first I anticipated, I never made a fortune, or achieved great success or fame, as perhaps writers don’t, even the purveyors of adventure and passion and crime, unless they write from the heart.)

    We can assume that Rendell has no life-threatening disease hanging over her head (or perhaps she did, until 1986: who knows?), and so: Barbara Vine, the literary Ruth Rendell.
    I’m not sure about this ploy. Is Rendell simply trying to delineate one style of work from another? Or is she suggesting that her other stuff, the stuff she publishes under her real name, is inferior to this, her "real" "literary" work? If the latter is true, one cannot help wonder why she didn’t let all her work be as good as her "best" work, instead of inaugurating an entirely new writer. And indeed, this is more or less what has happened. Since the advent of Vine, almost all of Rendell’s work has improved; she is presently producing a book a year, in a Suspense-Wexford-Vine pattern, and there haven’t been any stinkers for a decade, at least. That said, the Vine project seems to have swerved from its original intent; none of the later Vine books are as well-written as the first, while the Rendell books have gotten better. The worst thing you could say about Rendell is that her writing is essentially styleless–it is elegant and supports the plot and characters in the way that, say, a nice place setting supports a good meal. Rendell’s sentences are not the featured performers: her astonishing puzzle-master’s mind is the only
star. It would seem that, since discovering that she could produce a very well-written novel, Rendell decided that it wasn’t what interested her. This is fine by me; as I said, she can still write circles around any popular suspense novelist of our time.
    The new book, Grasshopper, is plotted in typical Vine fashion. A grown woman, expressing herself in the first person, is looking back on a tragic, mysterious past: two pasts, actually. In the first past is an incident that occurred when the narrator, Clodagh, was sixteen; we know early on that somebody died, and that this death involved a pylon, the kind that supports high-tension power lines. "They sent me here because of what happened on the pylon," the book begins, and continues for six pages in a breathless, melodramatic style, until, at the beginning of chapter two, we read, "I was nineteen when I wrote that." There: the first authorial subterfuge. The real narrator, the adult Clodagh, takes over from here and reveals that the teenage Clodagh was responsible for the death of her best friend and lover, Daniel; he followed her as she climbed a pylon and was electrocuted on the wires. The adult Clodagh, now an electrician (!) still feels guilty about this. We learn that the teen Clodagh was a claustrophobe, that she loved to climb, that her parents sent her away to school to put the tragedy behind them.
    The bulk of the book takes place in this middle past, the past of the nineteen- and twenty-year-old Clodagh, as related by the adult one. She goes to live with distant relatives in London, a couple who put her up for free but in the basement, which of course her claustrophobia renders intolerable. They treat her poorly, and each other even worse. As she watches their relationship deteriorate, she discovers a boy named Michael Silverman, called Silver, who lives on the sixth floor of a neighboring house owned, but rarely occupied, by his parents. Silver saves Clodagh from a panic attack she has in a pedestrian tunnel, and they begin to fall in love.
    Silver’s apartment, it turns out, is a kind of semi-commune for a number of young people whose only commonality is that they love to climb across the roofs of London. Clodagh finds herself begging off school to spend her time with them: Wim is a childlike, Buddha-esque Dane who lives for the roofs; Jonny is a common criminal who uses the roofs for access to the possessions of the rich; Liv is an ex-nanny whose ignominious escape from her employers has rendered her too paranoid to go out onto the street. She is also Jonny’s lover and slave, and is not-so-secretly in love with Wim. There are others, but these are the major players, and their defining traits–Wim’s confidence, Silver’s generosity, Jonny’s heartlessness and Liv’s fear–drive the events of the book.
    These involve a murder, two thousand stolen pounds, and a kidnapping. The kidnapping is the main thing. A white couple, at first seemingly unrelated to the book’s main characters, have adopted an eight-year-old Indian boy, and the government has decided to take him away, believing that he should be with parents of his own race. But the couple has fallen for the boy, and they run off with him. The story dominates the papers, and false sightings (or are they?) of the trio become increasingly common as the book unfolds. The central events of Grasshopper are set in motion when Silver and Clodagh decide to find the fugitive family, and help them escape the country. We can guess–we are all but told–that things are not going to work out quite right.
    These disparate elements are sewn together by psychology, and as in all of Vine’s books, the psychology is basically airtight. Everyone is perfectly motivated to do surprising and risky things, and these motivations, usually consisting of prior incidents, are active mysteries, not just character details. Silver, for example, was kidnapped once as a child, and mysteriously found on a beach three days later. He has only vague memories of the three days. This event does compel him to help the fleeing family, with whom he identifies powerfully, but it is also a loose end that is–surprisingly–tied up before the book’s end. Every character in Grasshopper does double duty in this way; there are hidden layers of event and emotion that cause the plot to twist and ripple. The dynamic among the many characters in Silver’s apartment is also of great importance; this is a place where Rendell/Vine always shines, in these tiny societies of the young, with their byzantine rules and circumscriptions. Such groups of characters create the kind of insular, seeming inextricable circumstances that a great mystery needs; a reader finds himself begging the characters not to do what he knows they must do because of who they are and how they feel about one another.
    The book, like all of Vine’s, tugs at you from every direction; there are never fewer than five little mysteries going on at a time. Who kidnapped the young Silver? Where did Wim come from? Where has Liv hid the two thousand pounds? Where is the missing family? Who killed the woman found by the river? There are times when it would be a relief not to have to think of them, but Vine doesn’t let you rest; she reminds you constantly of the complexity of her own book. If that isn’t enough, she also seasons the text with flash-forwards, hints that Clodagh drops about what is to come. "For a while I had a feeling of hope, of optimism, but it was the last I was to have for a long time," we are told. "I was dissatisfied with my hiding place and I considered moving it. On Sunday, two days away, I was to wish I had." This seasoning can get a bit too strong at times: at one point the adult Clodagh is talking to Liv, whom she has discovered living in a mansion years after the book’s major events:

She sat down opposite me, showing knees that were smooth and rounded yet with that sharp angle at the patella that defines perfect legs. I realized, amused, that I’d seldom seen her legs before, not counting the night they were splashed all over with blood.

    Plenty of nice touches embellish Grasshopper. Vine writes strikingly about London as seen from the rooftops, about the pleasures of being an electrician, about people’s tics and vanities and foibles. Her layers of narrative intrigue, but never confound; at one point, the twenty-year-old Clodagh is telling Silver the story of the sixteen-year-old Clodagh, and all this is being told by the adult Clodagh, who is the creation of Barbara Vine, who is actually Ruth Rendell. Vine delights in this kind of play, and it is a hallmark of her books. Themes from other Vine novels return here; even the gigantic dollhouse from Anna’s Book (my favorite Vine, I think) appears here, and is rewired by Clodagh.
    The ending is a mixed bag, but largely satisfying. Not all the answers convinced me–or, rather, they were all too convincing, too much what the less refined portions of my imagination wanted them to be. And the resolution of Clodagh’s and Silver’s affair, which has its ups and downs throughout the book, strikes me as a bit cute. But there is always something of a letdown at the end of a mystery as complicated as this one; the pleasure is not in knowing the answers but in anticipating knowing them.
    In the end, every novel is a suspense novel. We read because we want to know what will happen, and which words will be used to tell us, and how they will make us feel. Good mysteries–and Vine’s books are good mysteries indeed–force the imagination to extend itself logically and psychologically. Herein lies the legitimacy of the form, and a good reason not to be ashamed of loving it. God knows I gave up feeling funny about loving Ruth Rendell long ago; it seems that Rendell has given up feeling funny about being Ruth Rendell, too. Her recent books show it: they are confident, thrilling, and provocative, the way literature ought to be.


J. Robert Lennon is the author of two novels, The Light of Falling Stars and The Funnies.

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