A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

RendellI 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.

A New Lease of Death by Ruth Rendell

NewLeaseWhen I reviewed the first of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford mysteries, From Doon With Death, I described it as a competent but unsurprising plot. The bright spot for me was the character of Wexford who, while not a flashy or big personality, approached the case in a likeable and straightforward manner.

I was a little disappointed when, about halfway into A New Lease of Death, I realized that he would not play a large active role in this investigation. Certainly his presence looms large over the story but it is not his investigation and his biggest contribution is to recap the details of the crime at the heart of this story.

The novel begins with Wexford fielding a meeting with Henry Archery, a clergyman, who wishes to discuss one of his old cases. It turns out that the man’s son is engaged to the daughter of the man who Wexford identified as the killer of an elderly woman and who was executed. Archery wants to look into the case again to see if Wexford made a mistake as he and his wife are unwilling to consent to the marriage otherwise.

Wexford recaps the details of the case and gives his opinion that his reasoning was sound though he does not object to Archery’s plan to meet and talk with some of the witnesses. The investigation that follows explores ideas of family secrets and respectability but I think Archery’s experiences conducting the investigation are as much the focus of the novel as the information he discovers.

I commented in my review of the previous novel how differing social attitudes affect a modern reading of that novel with a contemporary one and I suspect that the same is true here. I think that a reader in 1967 was expected to feel a degree of sympathy with the attitudes of Reverend Archery at the start of the novel that a reader today may find a little harder to extend to him.

The attitudes in question relate to Archery’s belief that criminality is hereditary. Rendell’s novel examines that belief and its implications at points throughout the novel though it ultimately sidesteps having to take a stance on the matter. The thing is, Rendell writes as though the reader’s expected reaction will be to think he is a sound-minded and diligent parent rather than to think him narrow-minded and judgmental.

Rendell’s novel takes this character on a journey that if it isn’t quite transformative, will at least shake him and present him in a (somewhat) compromised light in terms of his own personal morality. I imagine that in the time that the book was written this would have been quite shocking, particularly in light of his position as a clergyman, but common social attitudes have shifted enough that I do not think many readers will be shocked or outraged by his thoughts and actions.

To put it more simply: I didn’t think that the character journey said anything particularly interesting or profound about the themes it was discussing. That is a problem because Rendell has made it the focus of the story and, if we look simply at the case I think the reader is likely going to feel disappointed.

The circumstances of the murder are relatively simple and much is already known to the reader at the start of the novel. There are some questions of motivation and the details of family relationships to uncover but the novel lacks much in the way of twists or surprises, relying instead on engaging the reader with the exploration of its characters. Anyone approaching this in search of a puzzle plot will likely feel very disappointed.

I did appreciate Rendell’s attention to character not only for the characters we may suspect of the crime but the other more incidental figures in the case. They are a surprisingly complex group and I think she succeeds in creating characters who have interesting backstories and that sometimes subvert expectations.

Had the narrative concentrated more closely on those elements I suspect I would be writing a more enthusiastic review. Unfortunately I did not care for Archery, his son or their journeys as protagonists and I struggled to engage with the details of the case itself.

In spite of those frustrations however I find I really enjoy reading Rendell’s prose and I think there are some wonderfully atmospheric and poetic moments within this story. The themes and the plot of this novel didn’t work for me but I am hopeful that the third Wexford story, Wolf to the Slaughter, will be more to my taste.

This book was released in the United States under the alternative title ‘Sins of the Fathers’ which is, in my opinion, a much better fit for the book.

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell

FromDoonI have mentioned before that my parents’ love of crime fiction played an important role in my formative years. One of my strongest memories growing up was my mother’s stack of Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter novels, one of which always seemed to be on hand for those sorts of occasions in which you were stuck in a waiting room.

While I did get into Morse in my late teens, I actually never got around to trying Rendell either in print or in the televised adaptations. Given that those starred one of my favorite actors, George Baker, I am not sure quite how I have achieved that. I probably should rectify that…

From Doon with Death was Ruth Rendell’s debut novel and concerns the disappearance of a fairly modest, conservative housewife and the subsequent discovery of her body in a wood, strangled to death. Among the clues that Inspector Wexford will have to work with are a tube of lipstick in an unusual shade and a set of books with messages all inscribed with notes to Minna from Doon.

Rendell hangs a lot of the narrative on the question of Doon’s identity, revealing something of that person’s personality to the reader in the form of short excerpts from letters that they had written to Minna as caps to the chapters. The way the book is structured, it will all build to a moment in which that identity is revealed and if the reader feels surprised it will likely result in a rush of excitement and general good feeling.

Unfortunately I think that this reveal does not really hold up, as it heavily reflects the novel’s age and aspects of the time in which it was written. I have mentioned that at times I have found not having the appropriate context or period knowledge to be a barrier in solving an older crime novel but here I feel that not belonging to the mindset of that period makes it easier to predict where it was headed and lessens the power of the ending.

It is not so much that this story could not be told today but that it would be told differently and our sympathies might be expected to be somewhat different. For instance, there is a male character who is treated far more softly and sympathetically than I think he would be had the novel were to be written today.

Whether the reader is surprised by where the novel goes, I think the appeal of the book is in the very competent execution of those ideas. Let’s face it, the clues in this case are fairly slight so it was a pleasant surprise that she manages to lay a convincing trail to the killer with such a weak starting point. There are no significant developments or twists along the way, at least until those final scenes, but just diligent police work such as Wexford and Burden conducting interviews and going from store-to-store in the hopes of finding where that striking shade of lipstick had been purchased.

I found Wexford to be a likable figure as a sleuth. He is not flashy and has no particular character tics, at least in this novel, that would distinguish him from detectives in scores of other procedurals yet I appreciated his matter of fact attitude toward the case. The pairing with Burden works well and I found their interactions to be quite entertaining.

I was a little less fond of the use of a trap which is used to prove a case – something that I think is usually pretty uninventive and underwhelming in these sorts of stories. Perhaps more importantly, I have seen some readers question whether this is a fair play mystery as Wexford receives some information in the form of a telephone call, the contents of which we are not privy to.

My own thought is that while Wexford receives helpful information that we don’t have, the reader ought to be able to get ahead of him by at least thinking to ask a question. While it is a manipulative move designed to try to add power to his explanation at the end, I think that information is only needed if something does not occur to the reader that they might figure out for themselves. I think the reader ought to be able to come to that conclusion for themselves so while it may technically not be entirely fair, I think the impact is minor.

Overall I felt that this was a solid if unremarkable start to the Wexford line of novels but it is one that gives me hope for when the time comes to read some of the later installments. What makes me sad is that Terrence Hardiman, who did such an amazing job narrating this, did not record the later stories when they were turned into audiobooks as I had loved his voicing of Wexford and Rendell’s prose. He does a great job here voicing the different characters distinctly and he is easy to follow so I would certainly recommend that recording if audiobooks are your bag.