Reading this book was a bittersweet experience for me. It was a joy to read a book by one of my favourite mystery/suspense writers, but it was sad to think that this is the last of her novels since Ruth Rendell died earlier this year.
Carl Martin, a young crime novelist, inherits his father’s house and acquires a tenant, Dermot McKinnon, to give him extra income as he struggles with writing his second novel. Carl also inherits his dad’s collection of alternative, herbal, and homeopathic remedies and he sells some diet pills to a friend Stacey, an actress struggling with weight gain. Stacey dies because of those pills. Dermot knows that Carl sold them to her, and he sets out to blackmail Carl: refusing to pay rent and threatening to tell the newspapers about Carl’s involvement in Stacey’s death. Carl’s life soon spirals out of control.
There are two subplots as well: the adventures of Tom Milsom as he explores London using his free seniors’ bus pass, and the petty crimes of his amoral daughter Lizzie who, her father admits, is prone to constant “lying, exaggeration, or fantasizing.”
Usually in a Rendell mystery, plots will converge seamlessly. That is not the case here. Tom’s adventures and Lizzie’s exploits are only tangentially related to Carl’s story. Had Rendell lived to revise and edit, I suspect the narrative threads would have been tightened so they would not seem so meandering and unconnected.
What is explored so well is how everyone has dark corners in his/her mind and how ordinary people can step out of dark corners to commit criminal acts. Carl’s need for respect causes him to take actions of which he does not initially seem capable: “he realized again what he dreaded most in Dermot’s threats. It wasn’t the loss of income. It was the humiliation he feared. He couldn’t live with the shame.” Lizzie is motivated by a need to feel powerful: “Doing [petty thievery] – and she often did it – gave her a sense of power.” Dermot has a similar need: “No one had ever been afraid of Dermot before, or not to this degree, and it gratified him to have caused someone this amount of fear without violence or even the threat of it.”
The book also examines how guilt can destroy a person. In its portrayal of psychological disintegration, the novel is masterful. Carl’s first act of selling dangerous diet pills to Stacey is not an illegal act, merely a careless one. He does however feel guilty and so Dermot’s threats of exposure are effective against him. A girlfriend describes the impact of guilt on Carl: “He hardly speaks but to rage against Dermot. He sleeps a little, dreams violently, cries out, and sits up fighting against something that isn’t there.” Gradually paranoia takes over his life. When one character suggests being too frightened to ever confess to a crime like murder, another responds, “’It wouldn’t be as scary as not confessing. It might even be a comfort. Think what it must have been like to have it on [one’s] conscience.’”
The effectiveness of Rendell’s character development is shown by the novel’s impact on the reader. Readers understand Carl so well that they will want him to go unpunished while at the same time desire some justice. Readers will also be left with a feeling of “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
There are some plot weaknesses but the depth of its psychological analysis, characterization, and thematic development make this a must-read for lovers of suspense books.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.