Including those she published as Barbara Vine, “Dark Corners” is Ruth Rendell’s 66th novel — and her last. Rendell, who was made a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh in 1997, died in May of this year at the age of 85. Throughout her prolific output, she maintained high standards, winning three American Edgars and multiple British awards for best mystery novel. One of her Inspector Wexford novels, “A Guilty Thing Surprised” (1970), was long-listed for the Lost Man Booker Prize.
As a longtime fan of Rendell’s, I naturally wanted to give “Dark Corners” a positive review, and luckily it deserves one. Its anti-hero is 23-year-old Carl Martin, who as the story opens is riding high. His first novel is about to be published, and he has a beautiful and loving girlfriend, Nicola, who soon moves into the house he has inherited from his father in an up-and-coming London neighborhood. Like the vast majority of novelists, though, Carl can’t live on his royalties alone. Rather than take a day job, he decides to rent out the top floor of the house and work full time on his second novel. To make it easy on himself (or so he presumes), he accepts the first applicant to stop by, one Dermot McKinnon.
All is placid under Carl’s roof until he makes a mistake. His dad took a great many alternative medicines, among them diet pills that Carl, always looking for ways to make money, sells to a chubby female friend. She takes some of the pills and dies; though ruled accidental, her death makes the papers.
Dermot not only snooped around enough to notice the pills in a medicine chest, he observed Carl making the sale. When the first of the month rolls around, Dermot refuses to pay his rent. When Carl objects, Dermot threatens to call the police. Unwilling to face the humiliation of having sold his friend the instrument of her death, Carl has to put up with what he thinks of as “inverted blackmail”: He is not being forced to do anything, but Dermot is being allowed to not do something, i.e., pay rent.
This might be barely tolerable if it weren’t for Dermot’s sanctimonious hostility. He takes over the backyard garden. He drops things on the floor — or more likely slams them down because the resulting noises are thunderous. He upbraids Carl for living with Nicola without benefit of marriage. He insinuates that, free lodging or not, he can betray Carl’s secret anytime he wants. The wear and tear on Carl’s nerves is heavy. He stalls on that second novel. He can’t sleep at night.
“This torment will go on for ever, for the rest of my life,” he complains to Nicola. “I know it sounds mad, but it’s true. I shall live in this house or another house and he will be there with me, wherever it is. He will never go and I can’t get rid of him. Sometimes I think I’ll kill myself.” How Carl copes with that “torment” is the central question of “Dark Corners,” which Rendell narrates with seasoned expertise.
The completion of her work calls for a retrospective. Here are some of my favorites among her novels:
“A Judgement in Stone” (1977): A mystery that pivots on the lead character’s illiteracy. Made into a fine film, “La Cérémonie,” by Claude Chabrol.
“The Killing Doll” (1984): A tale of tragic misunderstandings by a young woman with a disfiguring birthmark and her brother, a magician, whom she is counting on to remove it by casting a spell.
“A Dark-Adapted Eye” (1986): The first and arguably the best novel by Barbara Vine, who wrote at greater length and with less regard for the mystery genre’s conventions than her alter ego.
“Talking to Strange Men” (1987): A brilliantly intricate story of messages left in secret places, of spying and double-crosses, in which adult causes get mixed up in the games of schoolboys.
“The Bridesmaid” (1989): Some readers find Rendell’s mysteries too dark, their abnormal psychology too disturbing. If you’re among them, this gripping portrait of a female psychopath is definitely not for you.
“Grasshopper” (2000): Another Barbara Vine production, this one boasting one of the most unusual settings in all of literature. Much of the action takes place on the rooftops of London, where urban climbers perform feats to rival those of their counterparts in the Himalayas.
Let me finish by saluting the late Baroness Rendell in the proper British fashion: Well done, my lady.
Dennis Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
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By Ruth Rendell
Scribner. 228 pp. $26