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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Vine’

darkcornersI tried to take my time with Ruth Rendell’s Dark Corners (Scribner, digital galley), knowing there aren’t going to be any more books from the prolific British crime writer. Rendell, who also wrote as Barbara Vine, died in May at age 85, and it’s fitting that this final novel of psychological suspense offers a trademark tricky plot. So much for savoring every sentence — I was too busy flipping pages as Carl Martin’s life spirals out of control.

Carl’s a writer in his early 20s who has inherited a big house in an up-and-coming London neighborhood. Somewhat lazy and a little greedy, he rents the upstairs to the very first applicant, Dermott McKinnon, who seems a nice-enough fellow. Carl not only neglects to throw out his late father’s homeopathic remedies, he also sells some of the pills to an actress friend, who is then found dead. Carl feels bad, but he feels a lot worse when Dermott starts blackmailing him by withholding his rent. Even as Dermott further insinuates himself into Carl’s life, a young woman named Lizzie is taking advantage of her actress pal’s death, moving into her flat and wearing her wardrobe. Tsk, tsk. There will be consequences.

Rendell, always more interested in why than who, expertly juggles  her parallel plots, upping the ante with a murder and a kidnapping. We know her guilty characters are going to collide around some dark corner, but which one? Creepy.

banquetElizabeth George’s new doorstop, A Banquet of Consequences (Viking Penguin, review copy) features one of those poisonous characters you love to hate. Caroline Goodacre is a middle-aged meddler, an overprotective mother, spiteful wife and hypocritical friend, always ready with the withering put-down in hopes of wrong-footing her perceived adversary. But did she poison her employer, a famous feminist author, or was the fatal dose meant for her?

That’s the puzzle facing aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard and his workaday sidekick Sgt. Barbara Havers, who is threatened with transfer after haring off to Italy in the last book. But a Havers on good behavior is a less-effective detective, as Lynley points out to his boss (and former lover). Still, it takes Havers a while to shake off the short leash, which allows George time to digress on a number of subjects, from dogs trained to treat anxiety to Havers’ deplorable taste in T-shirts. Also, depression, abuse and suicide. If you like your books leisured and detailed with many, many characters, A Banquet of Consequences proves richly satisfying.

prettygirlsBack in the summer, Karin Slaughter wrote a nifty novella — Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes (HarperCollins, digital galley) — about a pretty college newspaper reporter looking into the disappearances of pretty women near the University of Georgia campus in 1991. Turns out that was the prequel to her hard-hitting fall thriller Pretty Girls (HarperCollins, digital galley). The Carroll family has never gotten over the unsolved disappearance of eldest daughter Julia some 20 years while a UGA student. The elder Carrolls’ marriage dissolved, sister Lydia turned to drugs, estranging herself from her sister Claire, who made a safe marriage to steady Paul. But after Paul is killed by a mugger in an alley with Claire as witness, Claire discovers nasty computer files hinting at her husband’s hidden life. Paul’s business partner wants the flash drive, as does the FBI. Claire is forced to ask Lydia for help, and the two show considerable ingenuity and guts confronting an unexpected foe and revelations about Julia’s disappearance.

Pretty Girls is not for the faint of heart nor weak of stomach. It’s grisly and twisted, and it grips like a hand from the grave.

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rendellSometime back in the 1980s, I called Ruth Rendell “a literary Hitchcock,” and the phrase stuck. It was picked up in blurbs on paperbacks, sometimes attributed to me at the Orlando Sentinel, sometimes to other papers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune — where my reviews also ran. I repeated it myself, or variations thereof, as in this 1989 review of  The House of Stairs, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym: “Again we see how Rendell/Vine has become the Hitchcock of the literary thriller, approaching her subjects from unexpected angles and finding the odd twist that throws readers for a loop.”

Oh, I’m going to miss her. Ruth Rendell died Saturday in London, age 85. She wrote more than 60 books, both traditional detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and chilling novels of psychological suspense. She wrote the latter under the Rendell name, and she further transcended the genre with the Vine books. The first was A Dark Adapted Eye in 1986, and she once told me in an interview that she knew from the beginning which book would be a Ruth Rendell and which a Barbara Vine. “Barbara,” she said, “was more serious,” and the crimes depicted were more sensational, the kind that captured public attention and might result in a dramatic trial or a family scandal.

All of her novels were intricately plotted, less interested in the “whodunit” and  more in the how and why. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all, including the collections of short stories and the frosty novella Heartstones. Many of her characters were outsiders, perhaps mentally disturbed or caught up in strange obsessions. She was interested in questions of identity, especially in the Vine novels, and her narrators tended toward the unreliable. She wasn’t afraid of the sordid, the grotesque, the downright creepy.

In person, Rendell was pleasant and thoughtful, somewhat reserved. She took her writing seriously, she said, but not herself, and she had more ideas than time to write. Her most recent Rendell was The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about in the post “Scare Tactics” in November of last year. Its mystery centered on a pair of severed, skeletal hands — one male, one female — found in a tin box by construction workers. The last Wexford was 2013’s No Man’s Nightingale, in which the aging detective  came out of retirement to investigate the murder of a vicar. But this is no armchair cozy, I wrote, because the strangled vicar is a single mother, whose race, gender and progressive views divided her congregation. (After 2004’s The Babes in the Woods, the 19th Wexford, Rendell told me she thought it might be the last unless she had a really good idea. She then wrote five more Wexfords).

Vine wasn’t quite as prolific as Rendell. There are just 13, including 2013’s The Child’s Child, a book within a book. I wrote that whenever Rendell assumes her Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. The Vine novels still can surprise me on rereading because I never can remember all the secrets of The Minotaur, say, or Asta’s Book (published in the U.S. as Anna’s Book).

The New York Times obituary states that Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is to be published in October. I don’t know if it’s a Wexford, a Rendell stand-alone or a Vine. I know I can’t wait to read it, and that I’m sorry it will be the last.

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forgersA friend was trying to remember the title of an old P.D. James novel. “Y’know, the one with the hands.” Actually, no hands. Unnatural Causes opens with a memorably creepy sentence: “The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.”

Severed hands also figure in two chilly new crime novels. In Bradford Morrow’s artful The Forgers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), rare book collector Adam Diehl is found murdered in his Montauk home surrounded by the ruins of valuable signed books and manuscripts. That Adam’s hands are missing leads narrator Will to speculate that Adam, the beloved brother of his girlfriend Meghan, was killed and mutilated because he was a secret forger. Will knows something about the subject because he was once a forger, too — specializing in Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James, among others — but he has spent years working his way back into the book world’s good graces. Now he verifies the authenticity of  the handwriting in books’ inscriptions and in old letters for other collectors, occasionally recalling the thrill of faking the perfect signature. His suspicions about Adam, which he keeps from Meghan, are heightened when he begins receiving expertly forged letters from dead authors that hint at more secrets about the unsolved murder and Will’s past. Aha! The game is afoot — or is it at hand? Will makes for an eloquent and informed — if unreliable — narrator, and readers will appreciate the inside details about bibliophiles, obsession and books to die for.

nextdoorThe severed hands are skeletal in Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door (Scribner, digital galley), found in a tin box by construction workers. The tabloids are fascinated by the mystery of the two hands — one male, one female — and the news reunites a group of childhood friends who 60 years ago played in the subterranean tunnel where the box was found. Alan, long-married to one of the playmates, Rosemary, finds himself attracted to another, widowed Daphne, once “the girl next door.”  Michael decides to contact his ancient father, whose abuse drove away Michael’s mother in 1944. Others  also find their lives upended by the police investigation. Rendell moves between the present and past, stringing readers along with a deft hand skilled at misdirection. The book reminded me of A Fatal Inversion, a long-ago novel Rendell wrote under her Barbara Vine pseudonym, although its characters are decades younger than those in the new book. Both tales, though, explore how past choices play out in present lives, often with exquisite irony.

killernextIt’s not just hands that are severed in Alex Marwood’s grisly The Killer Next Door (Penguin, library paperback), her follow-up to the Edgar Award-winning The Wicked Girls. I liked that book a lot, but I had a harder time with this new thriller as the killer murders, dismembers and tries to mummify women living in a rundown boarding house in South London. Ick. But the main story of the diverse people living on the margins of society and slowly realizing that one of them is a killer kept me turning pages. I wanted to know why Collette fled her old life and changed her name, and what has turned young Cheryl into a shoplifter. What embarrassing secrets is Gerard hiding, and why is Thomas lying about his job? Is Hossein really a political refugee? The penny-pinching landlord has been feuding with basement resident Vesta for years. To what lengths will he go to oust her from her rent-controlled apartment? A bizarre accident brings together the boarders to orchestrate a cover-up with unforeseen and surprising consequences.

brokenA time-traveling serial killer stalked the pages of Lauren Beukes’  The Shining Girls, and she again adds a whiff of the supernatural to Broken Monsters  (Little, Brown, digital galley). A killer dubbed “the Detroit Monster” introduces himself to the city with a grotesque corpse, half-boy, half-deer.  Det. Gabrielle Versado catches the case and tries to keep the most sensational details out of the press. But this is the age of the internet, and citizen journalist Jonno sees the story as his ticket to fame. Meanwhile, Versado’s 15-year-old daughter is playing a dangerous online game with a sexual predator and ends up at an inner city art installation that hides another horrific creation. A rookie cop goes missing. Then there’s TK, whose checkered past brings him into contact with the homeless, the friendless and the deranged. The fragmented storylines converge in an abandoned factory warehouse where little is what it seems.

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robinsonPeter Robinson’s series detective Alan Banks has little in common with David Baldacci’s Army Special Agent John Puller. But both the thoughtful Yorkshire copper and the cunning combat veteran face complex cases involving human trafficking and possible police corruption.

In Robinson’s deft Watching the Dark (Morrow, digital galley via edelweiss), the crossbow murder of a fellow cop eventually leads Banks to Tallinn, Estonia, where a pretty British teenager disappeared six years ago. Much to his dismay, Banks is accompanied by a Professional Standards officer, Joanna Passero, while his usual partner, Annie Cabbot, stays home investigating a migrant labor scam. When Banks discovers a link between the cases, he puts his and his colleagues’ lives in jeopardy.

baldacciSimilar peril finds Puller in the small Florida panhandle town of Paradise in Baldacci’s The Forgotten (Grand Central Publishing, purchased hardcover) when he uncovers evidence that his elderly aunt’s drowning death may be connected to the murder of a local retired couple. Puller takes his time piecing the puzzle and wrangling with local law enforcement, while an enigmatic gardener plots revenge at a wealthy tycoon’s gated estate. But all is revealed in an explosive finale that had me flipping pages.

nineteenSmugglers also play a part in Janet Evanovich’s new Stephanie Plum tale, Notorious Nineteen (Random House, library hardcover). I gave up on the flip New Jersey bounty agent a few books back as her adventures became more raucous, raunchy and ridiculous. But she’s in fine form in this entertaining escapade hunting for patients who have mysteriously disappeared from a local hospital. So, too, are Morelli, Ranger and other series regulars, including Rex the hamster and Bob the dog, but several cars lose their lives.

childsWhen Ruth Rendell assumes her Barbara Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail, or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. Just summing up The Child’s Child (Scribner, digital galley via edelweiss) requires many little gray cells. In this book-within-a-book, siblings Grace and Andrew Easton agree to share their late grandmother’s London houseEnter James Derain, Andrew’s handsome lover, who argues with Grace over her doctoral dissertation on society’s attitudes about unwed mothers. Two events further complicate their lives: James and Andrew witness a friend’s murder outside a nightclub, and Grace discovers an unpublished 1951 novel about a gay man who masquerades as his younger sister’s husband to give her illegitimate child a name. Vine’s artful storytelling encompasses sex, lies, murder and social taboos past and present. It’s engrossing reading even though the characters are often unsympathetic.

mcmahonJennifer McMahon also does some nifty time-shifting in her harrowing The One I Left Behind (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss), as a successful architect confronts her past and a creepy serial killer dubbed Neptune. The summer Reggie is 13 and hanging out with fellow uncool kids Tara and Charlie, her has-been actress mother Vera disappears and is presumed to be Neptune’s last victim after her severed hand is delivered to the small town’s police station. A quarter century later, Vera reappears in a homeless shelter, but she is suffering from cancer and dementia. Reggie returns to her childhood home where she lived with her aunt to help care for her mother. Tara and Charlie are still around, as are several of Vera’s old boyfriends and Charlie’s cop father. So, too, is Neptune. Yikes!

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When things go bump in the night at my place, it’s usually because a pet or a person has dislodged a stack of books. Just as well. “Haunted condo” doesn’t have the same ring as “haunted house.”

I like my haunted houses old, large and creepy, preferably in Britain, but a Southern mansion will do the trick. The ghosts may or may not be “real,” but someone will think they are. The past will impinge upon the present in unforseen ways. One of my favorite haunted houses is Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, where spooky Mrs. Danvers asks the young narrator if she believes the dead return to watch the living.

So I had high hopes for the decaying Warwickshire mansion known as High Hundreds, the setting for Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I generally like Waters’ books (Fingersmith), and this one was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recommended by Stephen King, who knows something about scaring the daylights out of readers.

But The Little Stranger, in which narrator Dr. Faraday, becomes involved in the diminished lives of the Ayers family — widowed mother, World War II-injured son Roderick, spinster daughter Caroline — is all repressed psychological suspense, owing much to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. A friend who has read neither book found The Little Stranger “a well-written non-story.”  I agree. Hundreds itself is a fascinating haunted house, but the tale is ultimately dispiriting.

Waters’ novel, which came out last year, did send me back to re-read 2007’s  The Minotaur by Barbara Vine, a master of literary suspense whether writing under the Vine pseudonym or as Ruth Rendell.  Here the setting is 1960s Essex and the vine-covered (!) Lydstep Old Hall, home to the seriously dysfunctional Cosway family. The narrator, young Swedish nurse Kerstin, arrives admittedly like a Bronte heroine to be confronted by a selfish matriarch ruling over four daughters and a troubled genius son, John. Kerstin, who is there to help look after the supposedly schizophrenic John, soon decides that drugging John into a zombie-like state isn’t doing him any good. Meanwhile, a dashing, penniless artist has arrived in the neighborhood and doesn’t seem to care which Cosway sister he’ll seduce.

It’s all as complicated as the library labyrinth at the center of the house where John seeks refuge. Vine spins a teasing narrative threaded with clues and leading inexorably to a shocking climax. You know something horrible is bound to happen, but not how or to whom. Disturbing and haunting. 

Open Book: I received The Little Stranger (Penguin) as a Christmas gift and bought a paperback of The Minotaur (Knopf) after first reading a library copy.

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