Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

Originally published in 2015

When his father dies, Carl Martin inherits a house in an increasingly rich and trendy London neighborhood. Cash poor, Carl rents the upstairs room and kitchen to the first person he interviews, Dermot McKinnon. That is mistake number one. Mistake number two is keeping the bizarre collection of homeopathic and alternative “cures” that his father left in the medicine cabinet, including a stash of controversial diet pills. Mistake number three is selling fifty of those diet pills to a friend, who is then found dead.

Dermot seizes a nefarious opportunity and begins to blackmail Carl, refusing to pay rent, and creepily invading Carl’s space. Ingeniously weaving together two storylines that finally merge in a shocking turn, Ruth Rendell describes one man’s spiral into darkness—and murder—as he falls victim to a diabolical foe he cannot escape.

Carl Martin has just published his first novel when he makes the fateful choice to offer the upstairs rooms to let. He accepts the very first offer on the room from Dermot, an assistant at a vet’s clinic, and is looking forward to getting some extra income to tide him over while he works on his new book.

Carl’s friend Stacey is worried about whether some recent weight gain will keep her from getting more acting roles. She spots some pills that had belonged to Carl’s deceased father and offers him fifty pounds for them which he accepts. When she is found dead in her flat and the pills are identified as the cause of death Carl feels terrible but his situation gets worse when Dermot lets him know he witnessed the transaction and would like to renegotiate the terms of his tenancy…

Dark Corners was published a short time after Rendell’s death and contains many of the hallmarks of her approach to the inverted crime story. Instead of focusing on a single, terrible decision in a character’s life we see it as an escalation of bad choices made under increasing pressure. Carl does not begin the book as a bad man – he is simply an increasingly desperate one who finds himself in a situation where he has no way out.

Rendell handles this character study very well and the reader may well find themselves experiencing some amount of empathy for Carl, at least at some points in the story. One reason for this is that Carl clearly never intends any harm to his friend who asks for the pills. The other is that Dermot is shown to be a hypocrit who is enjoying being able to exert power over someone else. As Carl’s life becomes harder and harder, readers are likely going to understand why he feels under enormous pressure and why his options feel so limited.

What I think makes Carl such an interesting figure is that he could so clearly be anyone. Looking at comments on Goodreads a common complaint about the book from readers is that he could easily have had a different outcome if he had responded differently to Dermot’s threats, yet I feel that is the whole point of the book. If you consider them at the moment he makes them, his decisions appear quite reasonable and typically the least painful of the options he has on offer. It is only because we have the distance and are not personally involved that we can also see how he is working himself into an impossible corner.

Dermot is similarly quite an intriguing character being portrayed more as odd than dangerous. In some respects he is reminiscent of Arthur, the serial killer in A Demon in My View. He is socially awkward, fixated on particular aspects of an interaction and suffering from an inferiority complex. I found Dermot a consistently credible and well-observed creation and had no difficulty at all in picturing him or believing in his choices.

While the main plotline of the book feels compelling and credible, it can be harder to see the point of some of the secondary plots. One of these involves Tom, an older man who has started to ride around London using his free bus pass on the various routes as a hobby. I thought that this is an interesting idea and appreciated how well-observed this character seems yet this thread never connects back to the main story at all.

Another involves Lizzie, a young woman who is secretly staying in the victim’s apartment and taking her things. This at least feels better linked to the main plot and while it seems to pull away from the Carl and Dermot story. If it is a less compelling story than Carl’s it reflects that the other characters involved in that storyline feel rather more functional, lacking much of the dimension that she or Dermot have.

Though it may appear that Lizzie’s storyline also feels like a distraction from the main thrust of the plot I feel that this thread develops some similar ideas to those found in Carl’s. Hers is also a story about the consequences of decisions taken and while I feel that there is not quite enough payoff for the story thread as it develops, I do think it complements that main storyline.

It is that development of theme that I find to be the most successful aspect of this novel. Rendell’s most central characters feel credible and well-observed and I found the slow escalation of a situation to be quite compelling. While it is perhaps not as tidily plotted as some of her best work, the character development and exploration of a situation were more than enough to keep me engaged.

The Verdict: An interesting exploration of how a character can find themselves trapped in a situation where they feel murder is the only way out.

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