Vanity Dies Hard

vanity dies hardSometimes, when I’m reading a novel by Ruth Rendell, I wonder why I even try reading modern mysteries and thrillers by anyone else. Sure, I’ve found a few people I like, but let’s get real — you never have to wonder about Ruth Rendell. She’s always good.

Vanity Dies Hard is the story of the wealthy Alice, who is married to a handsome younger man. (Already you think you know where this story is going! But you don’t.) Alice is worried about her friend Nesta, who seems to have disappeared after she moved a few months earlier. Alice has been getting typewritten letters from Nesta, and her own letters to Nesta haven’t been returned to sender, but when Alice goes to visit her, the address doesn’t exist. She tries to follow up, both with the authorities and with Nesta’s other friends in the village, but she gets distressing and conflicting information. She begins to think that either Nesta wasn’t the person she imagined, or that something dreadful has happened to her, or both. In the meantime, shortly after she begins her line of inquiry, Alice begins to feel very ill. Her friend Harry, the village doctor, diagnoses a virus, but Alice doesn’t believe it; she’s never ill, and now she feels so horrible she begins to suspect something much more sinister.

The book follows a familiar thriller trope: everyone thinks the little lady is hysterical, so no one will believe that there’s something terrible going on. Well, Ruth Rendell doesn’t let us get away with that. In fact, she lets us see that Alice really is hysterical, that she’s spoiled, that she worries far too much about the age difference between herself and Andrew, that she can’t manage her emotions — and that there is something going on anyway. The book is short, just over 120 pages, and the tension builds in a nasty, slippery way until we find out what’s been lurking since the first few pages. So enjoyable; even though this isn’t one of her best, it’s a good solid read.

I probably have easily two dozen of her books that I haven’t read, if you count short story collections, and more if I go back and re-read ones I’ve forgotten. I think I’ll start putting them back on my list, as reliable pleasures to look forward to.

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9 Responses to Vanity Dies Hard

  1. Lindsey says:

    I think I’ve only read one Ruth Rendell but I know what you mean – the classic ones are always the best! Great review – I want to read more of her stuff now!

    • Jenny says:

      I especially love the ones she wrote as Barbara Vine, which are less whodunits than whydunits, or sometimes what-happeneds.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I found them reliable pleasures when I discovered my first Rendell on the shelf at the public library and then read every one on that shelf.

  3. Elle says:

    I checked when she died, and a lot of her books were out of print or reprinting then; hopefully the publishers have got their acts together and finished the reprinting, or will soon, because I desperately want to read her!

  4. Even when Ruth Rendell misses the mark (“Live Flesh,” for example) she’s better than anyone else out there. And at least five of her books under the Barbara Vine pseudonym are out-and-out classics. My personal favorite: “The House of Stairs,” closely followed by “A Dark-Adapted Eye.” And her later Wexfords tackle amazing social problems like genital mutilation and illegal immigration along with excellent procedural writing. The mystery of her novel “Simisola” is not fully solved until the final sentence hits you like a brick, and changes everything that came before it. She’s simply in a class by herself.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree. I think Dorothy Sayers is my very favorite mystery author, but who else is out there like Rendell/Vine? Patricia Highsmith for dark thrillers, perhaps. But as you say, absolutely a class by herself.

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