A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell
Originally Published 1976
In A Demon in My View, Ruth Rendell creates a character as frightening as he is fascinating. Mild-mannered Arthur Johnson has never known how to talk to women. And his loneliness has perverted his desire for love and respect into a carefully controlled penchant for violence. One floor below him, a scholar finishing his thesis on psychopathic personalities is about to stumble—quite literally—upon one of Arthur’s many secrets. Haunting and intelligent, A Demon in My View shows the startling results of this chilling alchemy of two very disparate minds—one pathological and the other obsessed with pathology.
I have written before about how one of my earliest crime fiction memories was seeing my mother reading Ruth Rendell books while she waited to pick us up from events. Well, my parents are in town for the holidays and they thoughtfully came bearing a stack of those Arrow paperbacks (sadly not pictured – I couldn’t find a good enough scan of those covers).
Many of the titles were Wexford novels but the volume that caught my eye first was the standalone novel, A Demon in My View. The book was an award winner, winning the author her first CWA Golden Dagger for Best Crime Novel in 1976, but what intrigued me was that it clearly was an inverted crime novel.
Arthur Johnson works as a clerk and assists his building’s landlord by collecting the rent each week. While he seems meek and timid, we learn that he is a psychopath who murdered several women years earlier before finding a way of channeling his aggressions, dressing up a mannequin which he keeps in the building’s basement and strangling it. Doing this he has managed to repress his murderous urges and is living a comfortable, if isolated life.
His comfortable world is threatened however when the landlord informs him that another man with the same last name and first initial, Anthony Johnson, will be moving into the building. For one thing, Anthony never seems to leave the building and his room overlooks the entrance to the cellar which prevents him from making his visits to that mannequin. For another, Arthur dreads the possibility that the two men’s mail may be mixed up and that he may open a letter meant for his neighbor instead.
Rendell’s Arthur is an intriguing creation being terrifying in his apparent normalcy. He is certainly odd, insisting on observing formalities and holding some strong if unspoken views on race, nationality and religion, but he holds down a regular job and gives his neighbors no cause to suspect him. He can seem rather sad and pathetic, we are told Anthony feels quite sorry for him, and I think we can understand his sense of inferiority and rage, even if he is unaware of it.
Though this story focuses on Arthur’s journey from the point of Anthony’s arrival, Rendell does find time to depict and explore his first murder in enough detail to give a sense of how he came to be this way. She does not present the reader with a potted explanation but rather provides us with the evidence and allows us to piece it together for ourselves. I found this to be quite effective and I appreciated that she depicts what is necessary to establish the character but does not feel the need to show us each instance of violence.
By contrast, Anthony’s life seems messy and chaotic. The psychology student who studies psychopaths seems far more focused on his love life than on paying attention to the others in the building with him. In many ways he seems an opposite of Arthur and it is no surprise that the two men do not get on together.
This novel is really the story of how the rivalry and tension between these two men ultimately proves destructive to them. I appreciated Rendell’s construction of a series of small actions, perceived as aggressions, that creates chaos and confusion. It is easy to understand both men’s worries and motivations and how their actions impact each other.
Rendell writes sympathetically to both characters, describing events in the third person but infusing the narration with their thoughts, feelings and observations. This does mean that we spend quite a bit of time inside Arthur’s head, experiencing things from his perspective and hearing his casual observations that are peppered with intolerant and judgmental thoughts. At other points we see how he can take a small, perhaps rather thoughtless event and perceive it to be something quite different.
Some may find the time spent inside Arthur’s head to be unsettling or feel that it makes for a rather unpleasant reading experience. For my part I can certainly understand it causing discomfort though I think the author created a compelling, credible character and sells the idea of killing as a compulsion.
One element of the novel that I found to be particularly interesting is the idea that pain and harm are often not caused intentionally but through oversight or thoughtlessness. This rang true to me and I think Rendell develops this theme very cleverly, constructing a story in which the intended effects of an action often turn out to be quite different from their actual consequences.
In addition to the two Johnsons, Rendell creates a wide and varied cast of characters with strong personality types to inhabit this converted house. While there was no breakout character for me, I think she succeeds in creating the sense of a real community within the building and using that to demonstrate Arthur’s sense of isolation.
Having discussed the setup, characters and approach that the story takes, I should perhaps say a word about the way it concludes. Since finishing the book I have read several reviews that describe its ending as disappointing. I disagree with that assessment but I understand what they mean.
The reason is that Rendell was not really writing a mystery novel but rather a crime novel. Sure, there are questions about whether and how the murderer might get caught but her interest is in how the crimes affect the perpetrator and the community around them rather than delivering action or a more traditional puzzle to solve.
For me the ending possessed a powerful bluntness and I think it plays beautifully into the themes of the novel as a whole. I appreciated that Rendell foreshadows this moment at a couple of points within the novel so, rather than coming from nowhere, it is a logical development of the plot and consequence of a character’s actions.
While A Demon In My View may be a little dark and unsettling for some readers, I think it is a striking example of the inverted crime form. The character of Arthur feels credible and I think Rendell does an excellent job of pointing out some of the contradictions within him. Based on this experience, I can only hope that there are a few other Rendell inverted crime stories sitting waiting for me in this stack.