I’m a huge fan of Ruth Rendell, whether writing under her own name or as Barbara Vine, and I’ve often cited A Judgment in Stone and A Fatal Inversion as favourite titles. The Lake of Darkness and A Demon in My View are almost as brilliant. But it’s been a while since I’ve read anything by her. No particular reason for this, though I was disappointed by Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, while finding Thirteen Steps Down at least a partial return to form.
On holiday I read The Birthday Present, a Vine title, and I had mixed feelings about it. As ever, I admired the author’s insight into disturbed minds and the strange behaviour. The story has two narrators. One is the brother in law of an Old Etonian Tory MP whose sleazy behaviour during the Thatcher era when the Conservative Party dominated the British political scene is the catalyst for the book’s events. Ivor Tesham embarks on an affair with a married woman (who, in a nice touch, has changed her name from Hilda to Hebe) which ends in tragedy, and Hebe’s accidental killing in a car crash. Ivor fears exposure, and conceals the part he played in the events that led to her death. He is not really a criminal (unlike one or two real-life Tory MPs of the time) but his selfishness is portrayed with clinical distaste by Rendell (a Labour party donor who was herself elevated to the House of Lords, from where she has presumably contemplated the sleazy antics of contemporary politicians with similar contempt).
The other narrator is one of Hebe’s friends, a woman teetering on the brink of derangement. She knows Ivor’s secret, and one of the questions that teases the reader throughout is whether she will expose the politician, and thus destroy him. Rendell is very persuasive when she describes the thought processes of deranged people, and much of the book is very gripping.
However, there are weaknesses. The early pages are rather ponderous, and the finale seems unsatisfactory. There is a great deal of foreshadowing of future events, and at times this got on my nerves. If you’re looking for likeable characters, you won’t find many here, and I also thought there were a couple of gaping plot holes.
So, to my mind this is not a book to rank with Vine’s masterpieces. I venture to express various reservations simply because she is such a great writer that I think she has to be judged by the highest standards – not in quite the same way, at least for the purposes of a short blog review, as a debut or mid-list writer, or a purveyor of action thrillers. But I must emphasise that I really did enjoy reading it and, subject to those caveats, can recommend it warmly.