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.