By Barbara Vine
Shaye Areheart. 341 pp. $25
Twenty years ago, a great storyteller split herself in two: Ruth Rendell moved over to make room for Barbara Vine. As Rendell, she has continued her Inspector Wexford series and added to a long list of stand-alone thrillers. As Vine, she has written a dozen novels -- the latest being The Minotaur -- that stretch the mystery genre's boundaries until only a hair-splitter can say where it leaves off and "serious" literature begins. (To complete the picture, a third persona now inhabits this complex woman; having been made a life peer, she is Baroness Rendell of Babergh.) Still going strong in her mid-seventies, Rendell/Vine has more than 50 novels to her credit -- a record of quantity and quality that calls to mind the prolific Anthony Trollope (one of whose novels Rendell has introduced for Penguin Classics).
Typically in a Vine production, whodunit is less momentous than how in the world it could have happened -- how a mildly unstable situation could have gotten so out of hand that murder capped it off. The first book published under the Vine nom de plume, A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), is a cardinal example. Before reading a single word of the text, you can learn that one Vera Hillyard was hanged for murder -- the dust jacket says so. Then the book takes off in another direction: As we watch, fascinated, Vine shows how a particular combination of unorthodox family structure, character flaws and circumstances led the very conventional Vera to kill someone to whom she had long been close. Deservedly, A Dark-Adapted Eye won an Edgar Award for best mystery of the year.
The Minotaur resembles A Dark-Adapted Eye in conjuring up a genteel English milieu that breeds violence. The new book opens with a chance encounter between two women, one of whom once worked as a nurse in the other's house, Lydstep Old Hall -- a name that suits its down-at-the-heels grandeur. Hidden behind a webbing of Virginia creeper, the hall was the residence of the Cosways, who lacked the funds to keep it up properly. Among other features, the estate was reputed to have a maze. Only after the narrator, Kerstin Kvist, arrived from her native Sweden to take up her post did she learn that this was an internal puzzle, laid out inside the Hall's vast library. Her patient, John Cosway, was the minotaur of the title -- the monster at the heart of the labyrinth. Or so, at least, his family considered him.
Now married to an Englishman, Kerstin explains all this in the long flashback that takes up most of the book. A chance encounter has summoned up the past, specifically the late 1960s, when she showed up at Lydstep Old Hall like a callow but educated young lady in a Brontë novel. She joined a family of sniping women -- a mother and her four adult daughters -- along with one man, their brother John, kept heavily medicated because he was thought to be schizophrenic. It didn't take Kerstin long to suspect that John's chief problem was the medication itself. Under a provision of his late father's will, the estate was John's in trust, and the women seemed to be using his eccentricities -- above all, an abhorrence of being touched -- as an excuse to keep him drugged into submission. (Savvy readers will figure out, even before Nurse Kerstin, that John was not crazy but autistic.)
While John slept a lot and otherwise avoided the female Cosways, they were busy feeding upon internecine scandals and rivalries. For example, it was common knowledge that the youngest daughter was the illegitimate child of Mrs. Cosway and the family physician, the very one whose prescription kept John subdued. Two other daughters were feuding over a local artist, who slept with whichever one he was in the mood for -- never mind that the elder was engaged to the clergyman whose church they all attended. These rancid affairs nurtured what Kerstin considered a peculiarly English blend of jealousy and hypocritical moralizing, and she was caught in the middle. It got so bad that hostility reached her even from behind, so to speak. After a particularly tense moment with Ida, one of the sisters, Kerstin thought: "Backs can be as eloquent as faces and hers, round-shouldered, slack under the floral cotton overall and moth-holed gray sweater, the muscles giving one nervous twitch, told me she had nothing to say to me and would welcome my departure." Away from the prevailing malevolence, Kerstin and John carved out a friendship. She treated him like an adult, and he warmed to her insofar as his condition permitted -- much to Mrs. Cosway's disapproval.
How the dynamics of this backbiting family resolved themselves is the burden of Kerstin's story. Elegant and gripping, The Minotaur flags just at the end because that bookish labyrinth doesn't live up to the role that the title seems to promise for it. But even a less-than-celestial Vine is far superior to the average mystery. ·
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.