The Birthday Present

Birthday PresentWhen 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.

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13 Responses to The Birthday Present

  1. No one was better than Ruth Rendell at her best, and even her lesser works are more interesting than most writers at their finest. I agree that The Birthday Present and the final Barbara Vine, The Child’s Child are not her best (for that you must go back to A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion, The House of Stairs–my personal favorite–and Anna’s Book). I have read at least thirty of her novels and even the most louche (An Unkindness of Ravens and Live Flesh come to mind) have their strange moments, and books like Grasshopper introduced me to what is now called parkour. Some Rendells that I particularly liked were Simisola (where the mystery is not solved until the final sentence in the book), Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, and The Bridesmaid, and the one about female genital mutilation (title escapes me at the moment). Beyond that, they do start to blur. Her first novel, From Doon With Death, is probably not as shocking today as it would have been when she released it in the sixties. She truly matured as a writer, but it’s the Barbara Vines that I remember most (also including No Night is Too Long and perhaps the most cringeworthy of all, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy). She was the best, and left the rest in her dust, as writers as diverse as Scott Turow and Patricia Cornwell openly admitted.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read lots of the ones that you mention, but I’d like to revisit some of them. A Fatal Inversion is the one I usually cite as my favorite, but I really need to read House of Stairs and A Dark-Adapted Eye again. I read those two one after the other and don’t know which was which. I do remember liking Anna’s Book a lot. I, too, cringed at The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, even as I couldn’t put it down. I liked No Night Is Too Long a lot, mostly, I think, because of the arctic setting. And Grasshopper stands out in my mind as well.

      I’ve liked some of her more recent Rendells a lot, almost as much as the Vines: Thirteen Steps Down, The Rottweiler, and The Water Is Lovely were all terrific. And from earlier on, I liked The Crocodile Bird and The Tree of Hands a lot, but I’d be hard-pressed to recall any details about them. Simisola and An Unkindess of Ravens are the only Wexfords I know I’ve read, but I’m pretty sure I read one or two others–I just don’t know which ones.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I’m like you about reading a bunch of her books in the 90’s–most of the ones I found in the local public library were the Wexfords!

    • Teresa says:

      My library had a pretty good mix. The trick was that they weren’t consistent about shelving them in Mystery or Fiction, especially when they were Barbara Vine books.

  3. Shonna says:

    I’ve read a few of hers, but not this one. It is on my list and it is interesting to read your take on it. I read her quite a bit in the 80s and 90s, but only occasionally since then.

  4. I’ve had better success with her books as Barbara Vine, but it’s a fairly small sample size. A while ago I had the notion of reading all her books in chronological order from the beginning, but it’s fallen by the wayside a bit. I need to pick it back up.

    • Teresa says:

      I like her Barbara Vine books best in general, but I’ve loved some of her standalone Rendells just about as much.

      I remember you wanting to read her books in order. It’s a tempting idea!

  5. Jenny says:

    I haven’t read any of hers in quite a while. She’s so reliable at being good. I’ll put a couple on my list and enjoy them over the summer, maybe for my book group.

  6. lailaarch says:

    One of my very favorite authors. Very sad to hear of her passing. But I’ve not yet read any of her titles written as Barbara Vine! I have that to look forward to! I’m reading number 11 in the Wexford series right now – Death Notes. I enjoy these mysteries – Wexford is a charming, wry character. Of her non-series books, Crocodile Bird is my favorite so far.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s been years and years since I read a Wexford book. I should go back to them sometime. I didn’t like them as much as the others, but I didn’t dislike them. I do remember liking Crocodile Bird a lot. And her Vine books are my favorites. You’ve got some wonderful books to look forward to!

  7. Pingback: Mini-Reviews: Crime and Intrigue | A Good Stopping Point

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