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Posts Tagged ‘literary thriller’

The crime’s the thing — and so’s the cover-up — in M.L. Rio’s audaciously entertaining If We Were Villains (Flatiron Books, digital galley). Imagine Donna Tartt’s The Secret History set at an elite arts conservatory in Illinois, where the acting students are obsessed with all things Shakespeare. By the fall of 1997, the seven fourth-year students — all bright, young things — know each other so well they can predict who will play what roles in an upcoming production of Julius Caesar. What they cannot predict is that their onstage parts soon will spill over into real life: lovers will fight one another, friends will betray friends, someone will end up dead.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First-time author and former actor Rio structures her literary thriller like a five-act Shakespearean drama, beginning with a prologue as former student Oliver Marks is released from prison after serving 10 years for murder. Waiting for him is the retired detective who initially worked the case and who wants to hear what really happened after the cast party a decade ago. Oliver then unfolds in flashback a story of love and friendship, obsession and deceit, with passions and secrets worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

For theater nerds and Shakespeare fans, the book is enthralling. An account of the three witches scene from Macbeth staged lakeside on Halloween night offers midnight magic. A production of King Lear features a set of mirrors reflecting the constellations of the night sky. Still, Rio is so well-versed in the plays that the students often speak to each other in pertinent quotes, and there’s no stopping for footnotes. Here’s Henry V, Pericles, A Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida. One moment leading man Richard is spouting  “How many fond fools serve mad jealousy” from A Comedy of Errors, and in the next, seductive Meredith is running to the lake proclaiming “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” from The Merchant of Venice.

It’s a credit to Rio’s writing style that these bits of poetry and prose enhance the narrative for the most part, that it seems normal for Oliver to think of Hamlet upon the discovery of a classmate’s body. These kids live and breathe Shakespeare, and all the world’s their stage. “One sin, I know, another doth provoke; Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke.”

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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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