Reviewed by Harriet
I can empathise with people who are driven by dreadful impulses. I think to be driven to want to kill must be such a terrible burden. I try, and I think I succeed, in making my readers feel pity for my psychopaths, because I do.
This quotation, from an interview Rendell gave to the Sunday Telegraph, is used as an epigraph to Dark Corners, the last novel she completed before her death earlier this year. I suppose the publisher thought it was apt for the story that follows, though I think it raises interesting questions. Carl, the central character here, is certainly driven to kill, but the act is not premeditated and Carl is almost able to convince himself that it was practically an accident. At first, certainly, he doesn’t seem to fit the usual profile of a psychopath (‘amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience’). Indeed, what makes Carl’s behaviour so chilling is the fact that at the start he seems like a pretty normal, though admittedly weak, sort of guy. But this is a view we may have to modify as the novel goes on.
Carl is a writer. He’s published one moderately successful novel but the second one is causing him major problems. He lives rent free in a house in Maida Vale which he inherited from his father, and has a beautiful girlfriend, Nicola, who adores him, but his money is running out fast and so he hits on the idea of renting out the upstairs flat. He finds a tenant, the unattractive but initially quiet Dermot, who works as a receptionist at the local vet. He also has an old friend, Stacey, an actress who has a part in a successful soap. But Stacey has a problem. When she got the job she was beautifully slender, but she’s been unable to control her eating and her weight has rocketed to the point where she fears she may lose her job. Concerned for his friend, Carl remembers that his father had a large collection of various medications in the bathroom cupboard, among them some apparently very effective slimming pills. He offers to sell some to Stacey, who is delighted. But neither of them bothers to look up the pills online, until Stacey is found dead and Carl discovers that there are many warnings that they are frequently fatal.
If that were not bad enough, Dermot has overheard the transaction, and now starts to blackmail Carl. He will not longer pay his rent, and if Carl tries to do anything about it, he will reveal the truth to the police and the newspapers. Now, most people would refuse to be intimidated, but Carl simply goes along with Dermot’s demands – which soon increase to include the use of the garden, into which he brings his stupid and unattractive girlfriend – although he is rapidly running out of money as a result. Nicola, who really is pretty saintly, begs him to stand up to the blackmailer, but Carl is utterly unable to do so, and his mental state starts to deteriorate badly. He weeps, he cowers, his life pretty much grinds to a halt. Then one night, encountering Dermot alone in an empty street far from home, he seizes his chance…
Last year I read Rendell’s previous, and now of course penultimate, novel, The Girl Next Door, I’d been planning to review it for Shiny but in the end saved the review for my blog [here], because I was slightly underwhelmed by it, and here at Shiny we like to make wholehearted recommendations. So it was a huge pleasure to find Rendell here absolutely back on form. All the aspects of her writing we all know and love are present here. The cast of characters is wonderful. There’s Carl, of course, whose deteriorating psychology is fascinating to watch. Is he a psychopath? I tend to think not, but that would be a very interesting question to discuss in a book group. But if you’re looking for an example of ‘amoral and antisocial behaviour’, there’s always Lizzie, a friend of Stacey’s, who although pretty and charming is a compulsive liar, a petty thief (she enjoys going into peoples’ houses while they are out, taking a small item and replacing it with something of her own, usually a black and white napkin ring), and an assumer of false identities. Lizzie has absolutely no qualms about moving into Stacey’s flat after her death and wearing all her expensive designer clothes. Equally fascinating, though harmless, is Lizzie’s dad who, following his retirement, spends his days sitting on London buses, and allowing them to take him more or less anywhere they happen to be going. And then of course there’s the deeply unpleasant Dermot, revelling in the power he has never had in his pathetically dull and useless life, and his even more scary girlfriend, whose deep stupidity goes hand in hand with a dogged tenacity which in the end does her no good at all. And there’s London, always so vividly brought to life in Rendell’s books that it almost becomes a character in it’s own right.
Among all the other things I’ve always admired in Rendell’s novels, whether written under how own name or as Barbara Vine, is the quality of her prose. I’m not a linguist, but I wish I were, as it seems extraordinary to me that she could write so simply and plainly, with no embellishments and no attempt to raise the temperature, and yet succeed so supremely in creating a tangible atmosphere of impending doom. Surely someone somewhere must have done an analysis of this – perhaps I’ll run across it one day. Meanwhile, though it’s very sad that this is the last novel we will have from Rendell, I’m more than delighted to say that it is a worthy place to end an astonishing career, and to recommend it highly to you. Enjoy!
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Ruth Rendell, Dark Corners (Hutchinson, 2015). 978-0091959241, 288 pp., hardback.
BUY Dark Corners at the Book Depository.