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Book Review : Danger Lurks in a Dark Literary Form

August 20, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

A Dark-Adaptive Eye by Barbara Vine (Bantam: $14.95)

For reasons that are unclear but possibly contractual, the celebrated and excellent Ruth Rendell has signed her new suspense novel as Barbara Vine. The pseudonymity does not linger beyond the dust jacket flaps, where the author is seen and identified as Rendell.

Whether the prose style of "A Dark-Adaptive Eye" would declare Rendell as author is not certain; she is a graceful but not idiosyncratic writer. Still, the substance is what can by now be called pure Rendell.

In between her expert police procedurals set in the village of Kingsmarkham, Rendell writes suspense thrillers that usually derive from aberrational states of the most virulent kind: madness, retardation, obsession, the line between reality and fantasy left in a tangled mess.

Some Unhealthy Murders

It is as if there were wholesome murders, born of good old solids like greed, hate and revenge, and unhealthy murders, erupting out of festering sores, repressed longings, frustrations without name or relief. It is the difference between accident and disease, and Rendell has few present equals at recounting fateful diseases of the heart and soul.

In "A Dark-Adaptive Eye," a gaunt housewife in the east of England has committed murder by stabbing, been hanged for it and memorialized in wax at Tussaud's. The mystery, which Rendell ingeniously preserves until the last several pages, is the identity of the victim, and the why of the murder.

It was three decades ago; everyone has forgotten or tried to forget the murder. Family names have been changed; the survivors even avoid each other, to avoid the pains of memories stirred.

But a writer is planning a book. The narrator, Faith, a niece of the hanged woman, has begun, prompted by the writer, to search her own memories. One question, at least, within the crime remains unanswered.

Rendell's particular and peculiar gift as a writer is her ability to hold us spellbound in the presence of profoundly unsympathetic characters, even as they lay waste to their good and relatively (or possibly) undeserving victims.

Pushing the Limits

She is with this book, and in the tradition of several other contemporary crime writers (including P. D. James, Nicolas Freeling, Janwillen Van de Wetering and John D. MacDonald), pushing at the far limits of genre. In this densely atmospheric Gothic, she may be feeling her Oates.

Rendell has the supreme gift to make her creations, kinky as they may be, flesh-and-blood credible, and the world they live in as real as a toothache, which it sometimes resembles. She dissects family life with a scalpel, especially marginal middle-class life at its most restrictive and socially envious. Snobbery has no meaning until one has heard Aunt Vera, she of the kitchen knife, claim a distant cousinship with a woman who was once affianced to the cousin of an earl.

World War II in Europe has just commenced. Faith, insecure, ungraceful, lumpish, is dumped in the country for the summers and bomb scares with Aunts Vera and Eden. Eden, only half a dozen years older than Faith, is golden and kindly, Vera a martinet scold making Faith's life miserable.

Vera's son Francis is the most detestable teen-ager since Dickens, with a malevolent gift for the kind of practical jokes that, like some of the stunts on "Candid Camera," humiliate because they lay bare grievous flaws of character.

Life's So Hard

It's a mean life; is it ever. Vera's unloved husband is off at war, and possibly glad to be there. Eden (Edith as her name really is) wants out and up and joins the service. Faith wants a touch of human warmth and kindness.

There is a kind of surrounding text of violence and death, or near-death, old and new. Vera had saved the infant Edith from death by lightning, but another child she was baby-sitting disappeared from its carriage and was later found murdered. Other cases of child death are cited (with only the most tentative and coincidental ties to the matters at hand).

Danger lurks in pushing at the limits of the form, as I think was seen when P. D. James' "Innocent Blood" seemed to abandon, at considerable cost, the in-town contemporary and bureaucratic world she knows well and writes so well about.

It is possible to admire the great cleverness with which Rendell as Vine has spun out her tale, and maintaining the suspense of a long-ago event, recreating the texture of that past life, linking present and past, measuring the narrator's childhood memories against her adult reinterpretation of those memories, recapturing the emotional duress that exploded in half-crazed murder.

Slowing Detail

But the piling up of detail has also slowed down the narrative process drastically. The genealogical trails of half-sisterhoods and great-auntships are overwhelming if less than compellingly interesting. In the end what may have been intended as a major novel with some of the trappings of the genre seems only a lithe and intricate thriller encumbered with the trappings of a larger, denser work.

Yet Aunt Vera is a fully comprehended individual, unlikable and pitiful both, and the narrator is more than the usual eye-witness; she is a feeling participant who helps us share the tensions and the wistful longings.

By any name, Ruth Rendell is a superior chronicler of the dark side. I think she has been more successful than she is this time. "The Dark-Adaptive Eye" is, not so incidentally, an apt title for this novel and for others of hers. It is in our nature that we do adapt, not only to the dark but to the strain and pain around us, until the light flashes and we see what all we'd come to accept.

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