The Killing Doll

When I was in middle school, a friend of mine complained that Duran Duran was not a very good band because all their songs sound the same. I remember wondering why this is such a bad thing, if you like that sound. Now that I’m older, I understand that great artists often reinvent themselves and experiment, yet I still think there’s something to be said for consistently meeting fans’ expectations.

What does this have to do with The Killing Doll by Ruth Rendell? Well, for one thing, this book was published in 1984, quite possibly the very year that I had that conversation about Duran Duran. But more important, it’s an example of how satisfying it can be to read a book by an author who does exactly what you expect and does it well. The Killing Doll may read like many other Rendell novels (The Rottweiler and Tigerlilly’s Orchids are close cousins of this one), but I don’t care. The difference may only be in the details, but those details make each book feel like an exciting new variation on a tried and true theme.

When considering a Ruth Rendell novel, I find it helpful to know whether the book is a Barbara Vine novel, a, Inspector Wexford novel, or just a regular Rendell. The Vine novels, which are written by Rendell under the name Barbara Vine, are darker and more psychological than her other books. These also, at least in my experience, tend to be the books where she tells a wider variety of stories. They are my favorites of her books. The Wexford novels, which Rendell writes under her own name, are police procedurals. I’ve read several of these and enjoyed them well enough, but not being a huge procedural fan, I’ve not made a great point of reading them. It’s probably been at least 12 years since I picked one up.

Then there are the non-Wexford Rendells, of which The Killing Doll is an example. These, like the Vines, tend to be psychological crime novels. They aren’t mysteries, per se. You often know who the criminal is and you even how the criminal has acted—or will—act. What you don’t know is when (or if) the criminal will act again and whether or how the surrounding characters will be drawn in. Many of the books involve a single family or neighborhood, or perhaps a disparate cast of characters whose relationships only gradually interlock. Her characters are frequently isolated, but they also exist in a community that can’t help but be affected by the other characters’ actions.

The Killing Doll focuses on a family, the Yeardons, and the various people they come in contact with over the course of a few years. As the book begins, 15-year-old Pup Yeardon is making a deal with the devil, offering his soul if the devil will only make him happy—and a few inches taller. Pup tells his older sister Dolly about his deal, and she encourages him as he pursues magic in earnest. Meanwhile, their mother is on her deathbed, and their father remains absorbed in his historical novels, which he reads one after the other.

Gradually, other characters enter the Yeardons’ orbit. Most significant is Myra, the single daughter of their neighbor, Mrs. Brewer. Pup and Dolly’s interest in magic draws them into a community of mediums and spiritualists. And all the while a former patient from a mental hospital named Diarmit Bawne is living alone, having come to London expecting a relative to get him a butchering job but finding nothing at his relative’s address but a letter he cannot read.

The Killing Doll is everything I expect a Rendell novel to be. It’s dark and twisted and shows people at their most unbalanced and unpleasant. These are not books to read if you’re looking for something with a sunny outlook. Even the happiest events here are tinged with a sense of menace and unease. The plotting is intricate and clever, with plenty of surprises but without gratuitous twists planted merely to shock. Rendell’s crime novels are usually grounded in real life, but she offers a few whiffs of the supernatural here that I found immensely satisfying. In short, it’s a Rendell novel and does what a Rendell novel is supposed to do; thus, I liked it very much.

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15 Responses to The Killing Doll

  1. Deb says:

    Rendell is one of my favorites; I think I’ve read all of the Wexfords and most of her other output. I second your comment about Rendell’s work doing what a Rendell work is supposed to do–and that’s NOT a bad thing. (For the record, I still listen to Duran Duran and Depeche Mode and, yes, all their music does sound basically the same, but so what?) What I like most about her work (whether as Vine or Rendell, whether a Wexford police procedural or not) is that the twists and turns (and there are many) develop completely organically within the plot and characters; strange happenings do not just occur because it’s convenient to the plot for them to do so but grow out of what the characters choose to do–and those choices are never randomly-inserted for the sake of the plot (I’m looking at you, Sophie Hannah!) but because the characters–good or bad–are true to themselves.

    Have you ever read Rendell’s A JUDGEMENT IN STONE? If not, I defy you to read the first line and not want to read the rest of it:

    “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

    Great stuff indeed!

    • Teresa says:

      I still listen to Duran Duran too, and I wouldn’t want their songs to sound any different :)

      And I agree that Rendell is great at making her twists feel like they rise organically from the plot. Even the bits that strain credulity don’t *feel* wrong in the context of the story.

      The funny think is, I’ve read so many of her books now that I can’t remember which ones I’ve read! I’m pretty sure I’ve read Judgment in Stone though because I do remember that first line.

  2. Alex says:

    Is it me or is offering someone who has just come out of a mental hospital a job in a butchers a narrative recipe for disaster? Reading this I realised that while I went through a Wexford phase a couple of decades ago and have more recently come to her work as Barbara Vine. I have never read non-Wexford Rendell novels. I shall have to rectify this as soon as possible, perhaps starting with Deb’s recommendation because her comment on Sophie Hannah suggests she is a finely discriminating reader.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Alex. I thought I was alone in finding Sophie Hannah’s books full of the worst sort of coincidences, supposedly smart women who do incredibly stupid things, and deux-ex-machinas in the form of conveniently-discovered diaries or computer files. And don’t even get me started on having three or four characters in a book having similar (or even identical) names!

      • Alex says:

        Deb, I do agree with you, although my main problem with them is the repeated patterning. It worked well enough for Little Face, but she’s become trapped by it and has to twist plots so that they will fit in with it. That, I think is one of the reasons behind the difficulties you mention. However, I think that the forthcoming book is a one off and I will be interested to see if freeing herself from the narrative straightjacket she’s created makes a difference.

      • Deb says:

        Perhaps Hannah’s like the guy who directed “The Sixth Sense,” shackled to a formula that worked once but now requires much huffing-and-puffing to deliver increasingly bizarre “twists” that make no sense and do not proceed organically from the material. I’d venture to suggest that when a writer comes up with intriguing premises but fails to deliver a credible plot then they’ve only done half the job.

    • Teresa says:

      An even bigger disaster is not to give him a job but to make sure he acquires the tools of the trade.

      And you and Deb are convincing me I need not bother trying Sophie Hannah anytime soon. She’s been on my list, because she looked Rendell-esque. But when I’ve tried other potentially Rendell-esque authors, I’ve often decided that I’m better off with more Rendell instead. Thank goodness she’s written so many books and is still writing (with two coming out this year)!

  3. lolll to the music all sounding the same, I guess I kind of like that, I mean look what happened with Coldplay when they went a different direction ;)

    I’ve never read a Rendell, but this actually does sound like something I might enjoy!

    • Teresa says:

      If I like a band’s sound, I don’t necessarily want change. I may not mind it, but I’m not looking for it.

      Rendell is definitely worth trying if you haven’t, and there are so many options! This is actually a pretty good one to start with, too. Or The Rottweiler or Thirteen Steps Down. And I don’t think you can go wrong with anything she wrote as Barbara Vine.

  4. Lisa says:

    I first read her Barbara Vine books and only tried the Ruth Rendell titles later, when I’d run out of Vine titles. I thought the two Wexford books I read were good, but I didn’t rush out to find more. I might look at the stand-alones instead.

  5. I love this review. I have often been disappointed in books by well loved authors who have changed things up and did not deliver what I was hoping for. Thank you for your review. I will have to give this author a try.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t necessarily mind when authors change, but it’s nice to have some authors I know I can turn to when I want a specific kind of book.

  6. Biblibio says:

    It’s funny, but I’m definitely in the camp of those who like things to change a bit. I’m not saying a bit of comfortable familiarity isn’t nice sometimes, but after a while I will grow extremely tired of it. Just like characters need to develop, I almost expect the writers to develop as well. “Doing what it’s supposed to do” is a legitimate request, but I’ve personally always preferred for writers to be a bit more adventurous…

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t always prefer familiarity over change. In some cases, change is good! But I’m glad some authors stick to a tried-and-true approach. I wouldn’t want every author to.

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