Review: From Doon with Death, Ruth Rendell

I kind of get a kick out of reading books that have Shocking Content (for their time), but because of the way society has evolved, the content that was shocking before is no longer shocking and indeed has become sort of — you know. Sort of wincey, and you feel bad for the author because it’s not her fault that the plot device she employed has become an awkward, lazy trope that a writer now would catch all kinds of flack for employing. And you know the author who did it when it was Shocking was a product of her time, and common wisdom was different then, but still you just feel awkward for her. But good awkward because the book is a snapshot of its time and it’s nice to see how society has changed.

I’m concerned that preface comes too close to being spoilery, but never mind. If you’re worried about spoilers, just stop reading this review now and give it a few months before you decide to read the first of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford mysteries.

That’s right! The very first! Now, I have had some success with Barbara Vine (though not infallible success), and have liked Ruth Rendell less, in spite of their being the same person. But I thought I’d read the first Wexford book and see what I made of it. From Doon with Death is about a poor dull woman called Mrs. Parsons who gets murdered in a forest. Pretty standard mystery fare, including the resolution, though apparently the resolution was Very Shocking at the time. It’s all, you know, fine. It isn’t as brilliant as A Dark-Adapted Eye, for example, but it’s a solid detective murder mystery and I enjoyed it.

Damned with faint praise? Yes, but as I say, not altogether Ruth Rendell’s fault. You’ll know what I mean if you read it.

Here’s the big thing that came out of my reading this book: The afterword in the edition I read discusses Rendell’s attitude toward the Shocking Content and how it is in line with what was believed to be Right and True at the time the book was written. It then says that a read-through of Rendell’s oeuvre is like reading a social history of England from 1964 to the present. Y’all, I love a Project. I love reading things in chronological order from the beginning. Those are things I already love. When someone frames it as being of wider sociological interest to do the exact thing I already love, you know I cannot resist. Hence I will be reading all of Ruth Rendell’s books in order from the beginning, not counting short stories, to the extent that my library access permits me. Project.


Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, Ruth Rendell

On with the reading of books by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine to decide what I indeed think of her!

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me – of whose title, incidentally, I simply cannot approve – is all about a caddish man called Jeffrey John Leach, who is wickedly assuming false names and seducing women so that they will give him money, and then he ups and vanishes, leaving them a bit in the lurch.  He has done just this to two of the three central characters here – crazy Minty Knox who has OCD and hears voices, and opportunist Zillah Leach who is now about to enter into a marriage of convenience with a childhood friend and queer MP – while carrying on an affair with a woman called Fiona, whose married neighbors don’t much care for him.

This book was interesting, and I read it straight through in one go, though more because I want to return it to the library when I go at two than because it was so frightfully gripping.  Everyone was just so unpleasant, it was difficult to care at all what happened to anybody.  I was pleased Michelle and Matthew ended up happy, although less pleased than I would have been before Michelle started getting all hysterical (why do Ruth Rendell’s women all go to pieces every time something goes wrong?).  But Zillah was awful, Fiona was neurotic, and Minty Knox with all her craziness just didn’t ring true for me.  So oh well.  On to the next.

An Unkindness of Ravens, Ruth Rendell

I confess.  I got this one because it has the same title as the book Lucas writes on One Tree Hill.  And you know what I realized when I was composing this review in my head while washing dishes?  I realized that Lucas’s book title?  Ravens is meant to refer to his basketball team, the Tree Hill Ravens.  Which kind of makes me want to gouge out my eyes.  Like, bad enough he’s written a pretentious book full of pretentious sentences and given it a pretentious title, and bad enough they’re pretending that this idiotic autobiographical book about Lucas and all his closest friends is such a masterpiece.  But see, I actually felt better about the title when I thought it was an abstract title that was with the symbols and everything – pretentious, yes, because it had nothing to do with anything, but I could deal with it.  Now I have realized that it is meant to be clever, I indeed wish centuries of stupid hair on Chad Michael Murray.  (Pointless wish that I know will be granted.)  Plus I feel resentful that I didn’t notice before, because my sister and I watched One Tree Hill all this past season, and I feel like we really missed out on some excellent mockery opportunities with that title.

Well, regardless.  Ruth Rendell’s book is completely unrelated to that.  It’s a totally acceptable title for this book.  Inspector Wexford gets asked by his neighbor to investigate what has happened to her husband Rodney Williams.  At first he thinks Rodney’s up and left her, but then there are all these mysterious circumstances that induce him to change his mind, like a bag of Rodney’s stuff turning up all abandoned, and them finding his body all drugged and stabbed.  And other people are getting stabbed by crazy feminists.  With ravens.

(Plot summary is one of my best skills.)

This book was more engaging than Vanity Dies Hard, less than Anna’s Book.  The plot went along nicely, but some things were a little weirdly resolved, and there weren’t any clever little linguistic tricks going around either.  (Like, oo, when Tom Marvolo Riddle rearranged to spell I am Lord Voldemort – that was my favorite bit of Chamber of Secrets which otherwise I don’t like a bit and I haven’t even bothered to replace my copy now that the spine’s all broken.) I wasn’t as interested in the characters, and I was displeased and surprised that Wexford – all perceptive with the incest thing – didn’t figure out a hundred pages earlier that when the girl said “those two women” she wasn’t talking about the mothers.  Because I knew straight away that she meant the daughters.  And I know that may be not a fair criticism since I’m of a different generation, but still it was frustrating.

I will say this for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I was thinking about the crazy feminists, trying to decide what I thought about her portrayal of them, and it got me thinking about many things regarding women and oppression, and I had a Total Epiphany about the story I’m writing.  It was one of those times when you’re writing a story and you realize something that’s happened in the story without your noticing, and all the indications for it are already there.  Because I had this epiphany, and I went back and reexamined my story, and I was thinking, Oh stupid Jenny, this element is already there, and it seems impossible that you didn’t notice this plot thread that was happening right under your nose.  I seriously only had to add about four paragraphs to the whole story to make the change.  So hurrah for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I am in its debt.

Vanity Dies Hard, Ruth Rendell

I began Vanity Dies Hard with the working hypothesis that Ruth Rendell was infallibly brilliant, and that even if her books were not as emotionally satisfying as Anna’s Book, they would always have satisfying and elegant plots like Anna’s Book did.  I was most disappointed.  Vanity Dies Hard had an ending that was the biggest let-down since the ending of The Machinist.  (Did you see The Machinist?  I already didn’t like Christian Bale, but my God, even for a movie containing Christian Bale, The Machinist was awful.)

Anyway, I had to create a new hypothesis based on my new data.  My new hypothesis was that Barbara Vine was good but Ruth Rendell was awful rubbish and not worth reading.  I am much with the scientific method, so I swiftly fetched the more appealing of the other two books of hers that I had.  Because I am trying to read her books least good to most good, which I’m hoping in this case means earliest to latest, but the library only had one of the early books in large-print, so I checked it out, but I hate large-print.  Thus I read the one that I grabbed randomly because of the title.  And I liked it rather better.