Book Review: 'The Birthday Present,' by Barbara Vine

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 13, 2009


By Barbara Vine

Shaye Areheart. 323 pp. $25

Barbara Vine is the pen name of Ruth Rendell, it's announced clearly here, and I admit I don't quite understand why Ruth Rendell would want to be Barbara Vine, since she seems to be doing just fine as Ruth Rendell, but there it is. Under either name, she's what you'd have to call -- cliche coming up! -- a consummate professional. Within the first five pages of "The Birthday Present," you know you're in the hands of a mystery/thriller writer who's in perfect control of her material. In addition to that fabulous control, Rendell/Vine maintains a matronly, almost magisterial tone that lends unexpected dignity to the goriest, creepiest material. It is her trademark.

The story here is told by Rob Delgado, who, despite the slightly exotic quality of his Spanish last name, has been brought up in an upper-middle-class environment in a picturesque village close to London, has been to all the right schools and works as an accountant for a very wealthy set of London clients. His brother-in-law, Ivor Tesham, has also done well for himself. He's an MP in the Conservative Party who entertains the highest ambitions. In Fitzgeraldian terms, Rob is Nick Carraway to Ivor's Gatsby. It is through Rob's sympathetic yet objective eyes that we see Ivor's rise and -- it's given away in the first few pages -- his inevitable fall.

Rob is married to Iris, Ivor's sister. He is a family man. The loves of his life are his children. Infidelity would be inconceivable for him; the high point of his young adult life is to take his firstborn daughter for a walk in a park, with her safely strapped to his heart in a Snugli. Ivor is another sort of Brit altogether: an incorrigible womanizer, an adventurer. He hates the thought of being tied down -- except in the literal sense by a slut with a whip and boots. Marriage seems entirely out of the question for him; or, rather, it's so far down the road that it may look something like death. He may have to do it some day, for political reasons, but right now he's preoccupied with his intense affair with Hebe.

Hebe, who is blond, slim and radically beautiful, shares Ivor's tastes in sex, but she lives a desperately pokey life in a grim little suburb, with a relatively poor husband and a little boy whom she neglects. She's a modern Madame Bovary, dying of boredom and what she perceives as a lack of the good life. When she meets Ivor at one of her husband's charity functions, she clamps her jaws down on the self-regarding MP like a gila monster. She doesn't want marriage, far from it. She wants studded dog-collars and laced thigh-high boots and a nice collection of heaven-knows-what kind of weird sex baubles. Her only problem? Who will provide the alibi for the afternoons and evenings she takes off to be with Ivor? Her alibi lady turns out to be Jane, a plain little nothing of a friend whom Hebe keeps around as a foil for her own astonishing beauty.

We hear the other half of this story from Jane, told in a series of diaries. Jane is a familiar character in English novels, the neglected governess or the spinster from Dickens. Needless to say, she burns with jealousy and grievance, hating her life across the board -- beginning with her mother, ending with Hebe and the reckless, handsome Conservative MP, Ivor Tesham.

All this comes out, beautifully calibrated, within the first 10th of the book. Then, as a "birthday present," Ivor arranges for Hebe to be kidnapped (with her full consent, of course) by a couple of masked thugs, bound, gagged, cuffed and delivered to Rob and Iris's house, where Ivor and Hebe will indulge in an evening of thoroughly British sadomasochistic sex. (Despite their respectability, Iris and Rob have said yes to Ivor's request for the loan of their house because -- well, how could they not? And how could they be aware of the hideous ramifications of this evening?)

Hebe is duly kidnapped by the two thugs, one of whom runs a red light during the abduction. One thug and Hebe are killed. The other thug lingers in a coma. There's an immediate media mix-up about the crime. Why would anyone want to kidnap an obscure housewife with a poor husband who wouldn't be able to pay a ransom? The police settle upon another, more glamorous blonde as the intended victim; she turns out to be a red herring, and the cops are left at a dead end. Now is the time for Ivor to step forward and clear things up, but of course he doesn't. Among other things, it would be an affront to his English gentleman's sense of dignity. And by taking this course of action, he sets in motion another very British theme: how the mighty must fall.

Again, we're told that Ivor comes to a bad end on the second page: "Mention his name and most people will say, 'Who?' while the rest think for a bit and ask if he wasn't 'the one who got involved in all that sleaze back in whenever it was . . .' " It takes a few hundred pages more to see exactly what happens to Ivor, the car-accident people, Rob and Iris, the aggrieved Jane and all the children. Despite its soft-porn highlights, the author addresses this material as if she were Winston Churchill's nanny. Her tone in every line is maternal, soothing, proper. You really do feel cradled. You can keep on reading this with tranquillity even as your plane lurches down out of the sky.

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