Entertainment Books

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Books: Last novel from the wonderful Ruth Rendell

Thriller: Dark Corners, Ruth Rendell, Hutchinson, tpbk, 288 pages, €19.50

Master at evoking the dark: Ruth Rendell.
Master at evoking the dark: Ruth Rendell.
Ruth Rendell's 'Dark Corners'.

John Boland

The closing four words of this novel are "now it's all over". And so it was soon to be for Ruth Rendell - not long after writing this ending, she suffered a stroke from which she never recovered, dying last May at the age of eighty-five.

Hers was a remarkable career. The daughter of a Swedish mother and an English father, she grew up in South Woodford and became a reporter on a local London paper before turning her talent to fiction, publishing her first 'Inspector Wexford' novel in 1964.

There were to be 23 more Wexford books, 28 non-Wexford novels and a further 14 written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, starting with the award-winning A Dark-Adapted Eye, which was published in 1986.

Although much praised by her peers - Ian Rankin arguing that she was "consistently better than most Booker winners" - she was modest about her literary achievements, declaring that "nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer".

Most Rendell fans - whether of the immensely popular Wexford series (and their television spinoffs starring George Baker) or of the darker and more unsettling Vine novels - would disagree, and although this posthumously published last book doesn't rate among her finest, its clammy atmosphere and build-up of tension are unmistakeably the work of this writer.

Or at least this writer in bleak, semi-Vine mode, with no reassuring Wexford on the scene - indeed, featuring no one with whom you might care to identify. Yet such is Rendell's skill that you can't help getting concerned about the plight of hapless young novelist Carl, whose misfortunes begin when he rents rooms in his London suburban house to veterinary clinic employee Dermot.

Dermot turns out to be the tenant from hell, creepily overfamiliar from the outset and then refusing to pay the rent after surmising correctly that the slimming pills Carl had given to friend Stacey are what had caused her death.

How the wimpish Carl tries to solve his predicament forms the book's main thrust, but there are other plotlines, including one involving the thoroughly dislikeable Lizzie, who moves into Stacey's posh flat after Stacey's demise and then gets herself abducted by thugs who mistakenly think she comes from a moneyed family.

This strand isn't properly resolved (you never learn who ordered the kidnapping), and nor is one concerning Lizzie's father, who travels aimlessly around London all day on various buses and finds himself the hero of a bomb attack on one of the buses - a nod towards topicality that seems half-hearted and goes nowhere.

But Rendell is very good at evoking the dark and sometimes sinister undercurrents that lie behind the facades of seemingly ordinary lives, and she expertly ratchets up the tension, too, as an increasingly unhinged Carl tries to find a solution to a mess that's only partly of his own making.

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