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[763] A Site for Sore Eyes – Ruth Rendell

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” The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind. ”

A Site for Sore Eyes tells three stories: Amidst the squalor of North London, in the hands of neglectful parents, Rendell describes in vivid details the cultural sewer in which Teddy Grex grew up. He becomes a gifted woodcrafter who appreciates everything beautiful. But he is also a psycopath capable of the vilest crimes. Francine is a mentally fragile girl who became mute after witnessing her mother’s murder. Then there’s Orcadia Cottage, greatly admired by Teddy, scene of a famous painting that is at the center of much of the story’s anguish.

These three seemingly separate stories gradually merge into one horrific tale. Rendell weaves a puzzle and as one tries to put together the pieces, the reader is captivated by her ability, her understanding of human behavior and her rendering everything into a mesmerizing whole. For once both Teddy and Francine are damaged people. Unloved as a child Teddy has grown to become a cold and indifferent young man who turns to beautiful objects for fulfillment. Francine is traumatized by the sight of her mother’s murder, making her vulnerable to the overbearing possessiveness of her stepmother, Julia. Teddy becomes obsessed with Francine after the first meeting…

This book is very dark and spooky. It is a crime novel, but one in which we see the crime happen in very brazen manner. But even the criminality is not what makes this book dark. Rather, the darkness comes from watching the three disparate (at first) characters live their lives in a broken society, one where privilege and poverty exist to keep the other in check. Both serve as a kind of prison, and in fact this book really is about prisons, both metaphorical and literal.

A Site for Sore Eyes paves the way for The Vault as the three stories converge toward the end but not resolved. There are a number of threads that come together in an inexorable way. It’s a chilling book but very humanized. This is the kind of book that keeps you guessing, and pushing you off the edge of the seat because of the blindspots imposed on the characters.

417 pp. Arrow UK. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[760] The Killing Doll – Ruth Rendell

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” Why not? You made holy water, you said the words, you stabbed the doll with your dagger and she died. Half an hour later she was dead. You stab the doll in the stomach and it was that part of her killed her. (Ch.13, p.123)

Didn’t know what to expect of The Killing Doll, but the title just appealed—as a kid I was spooked out by the batting eye lids and pearly gaze of a doll. This earlier Rendell is a psychological suspense with two separate story-lines that will eventually overlap with fatal outcomes. Far from fashionable, Manningrove Tree is a town on an abandoned rail line. The principal plot concerns the household of Harold Yearman, whose wife has just died and leaving behind a strange, devoted pair of siblings. Dolly, in her 20s, a withdrawn innocent, is psychically scarred by a large purple facial birthmark. Her teenage brother, pup, short and insecure, becomes bookishly obsessed with geomancy and withcraft, conducting rituals and casting spells in his mini-temple upstairs.

Dolly over time has turned an alcoholic. She is convinced of her brother’s power, which has cajoled his height and brought in Harold’s business success. Dolly, who is extremely possessive of her brother, is also becoming very jealous of him. When Harold marries the young, vulgar Myra, Dolly persuades Pup to cast a spell on this evil stepmother (who makes overt allusion to her facial birthmark)—who does indeed die promptly. Was it really witchcraft or just a botched attempt at abortion? Myra’s death nonetheless reaffirms Dolly’s faith in Pup’s powers. But it’s obvious Dolly is plunging downward spiral into insanity.

Craving a friendship with the elegant Yvonne, Dolly tries to intercede Yvonne’s husband’s homosexual affair with yet another spell. But she is irrevocably on the path to non-magical murder. This is how the secondary plot kicks in and involves Dolly. The book is not flawless, especially the seemingly incomplete secondary plot. But overall the book is redolent of a genuine, haunting creepiness and an achingly pathetic irony in the central portrait.

237 pp. Arrow Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Ruth Rendell

Mystery browsing brought me to Ruth Rendell, a British novelist of over 50 mysteries and is still publishing. Rendell started by writing short stories in her 20s, but (quoting her words) they were not very good. She was not particularly drawn to crime fiction. She just started writing her first published novel, From Doon with Death, as an experiment, to see if she could write a detective story. Then the publisher John Long gave her an advance of £75 for it; and the following year, an American publisher came over, liked it, and offered her 15 times that.

I was drawn to Ruth Rendell because she has been recommended to me by trusted fellow reader-friends. I learned that we shared a common favorite book, John Williams’s Stoner, a wonderful book, set in a college in the midwest: simple, straightforward, and yet full of displaced, sad things. With Fatal Inversion, Portobello, The Vault, A Sight for Sore Eyes, and A Judgment in Stone, I’m ready for the coming fall weekends.

P.S. I only found out today Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine.