When I saw on Saturday that Ruth Rendell had died, I just happened to have The Birthday Present, which she wrote under the name Barbara Vine, out from the library. Of course, I had to pick it up right away and read it. I’m sorry to say that it’s not one of her best books, but I find that even her less successful books are enjoyable to read. She is an extraordinarily reliable author, and I’ve never been sorry to have read one of her books.
The titular birthday present is a pretend abduction that Ivor Tesham planned as a surprise for his lover Hebe Furnal. The couple enjoyed playing sexual games, and so Ivor had hired a couple of men to nab Hebe off the street and bring her to him for a night of adventures in the bedroom. But a fatal traffic accident kept Hebe from reaching him, and the police were left with what looked like a kidnapping to investigate.
Ivor, as a member of Parliament, needed to keep his plan a secret. Hebe was married, and this was the early 1990s, when the political establishment took a special interest in rooting out sleaze. So when he learned of Hebe’s death, he kept quiet, hoping that the one survivor of the accident would not emerge from his coma and wondering who else knew about his relationship with Hebe.
The story here, looking back from the present day, after the scandal became public, is told by two bystanders. The first narrator, who has pulled the whole story together, is Ivor’s brother-in-law, Rob. Ivor had borrowed Rob and his wife Iris’s house for his birthday surprise, so Rob was in on the story from the beginning. The other narrator, Jane Atherton, is Hebe’s alibi whenever she meets Ivor. Jane’s version of the story comes in the form of diary entries, which Rob tells us he has collected.
The story itself is gripping, as Rendell’s Barbara Vine books always are. There are lots of secrets to unearth and lots of questions to answer. And having the story be told by these two characters is a wonderful choice. They’re close enough to know details of what happened, but distant enough to not be immersed in those details. Plus, being this close to tragedy can have an effect on a person, but there are no scripted responses or usual patterns for coping with being adjacent to, but not directly involved with, this sort of tragedy or scandal.
Watching Rob and Jane’s disparate reactions is one of the more unsettling (and sometimes frustrating) aspects of the book. Jane, a spinster librarian at a failing library, begins to see Hebe’s death as a route to her own salvation. If she can make herself indispensable to Hebe’s husband, perhaps he’ll save her from her loneliness. Rob, married with a child and more on the way, keeps himself more distant, acting as a sounding board for Ivor but not letting himself be personally drawn in much. You can probably imagine why I found this troubling. It just played into so many annoying tropes about single women and childlessness and family as salvation and so on. I don’t want to say writers can never write stories about sad, mad spinster women. Such stories can work, and this story does. I’ve seen many sad, mad spinsters in Rendell’s fiction and not been bothered. I think what troubled me here is that she set such a woman up against a more well-heeled family man, making her sex and her singleness and her childlessness look like the problem. Usually, in Rendell’s books, madness is spread around all over the place.
Still, despite this annoyance (as well as my sense that the two narrative voices weren’t as distinct from each other as they could have been), I was entertained by this book. Ruth Rendell never fails to entertain me, especially when she’s writing as Barbara Vine. And thinking about how sad I am to see her go, and how reliable a writer she is, I find myself tempted to read or reread all her books (more than 60 of them!). I read so many of them in a big bunch back in the mid-90s that they’re a big blur to me. I’d like to revisit a lot of those. And then there are so many I haven’t gotten around to. (I avoid the Inspector Wexford books, for example, not because I dislike them, but because I like the others better, and setting a limit with such a prolific author is helpful.) The urge will probably pass, but reading all the tributes to her over the weekend put me in the mood for more.