Can this really be the last novel we will have from the pen of Ruth Rendell? The late novelist was such a mainstay of British crime fiction — one of the most considerable talents the country has ever produced — that it feels hard to believe. Aficionados of the genre will turn to Dark Corners with a poignant mixture of anticipation and regret.
Its protagonist is Carl Martin, a hapless tyro novelist who inherits his father’s collection of out-of-date alternative remedies. Carl ignores his mother’s advice to throw them all out and, in typically insouciant fashion, sells a box of slimming pills to an actress friend, Stacey. She is yet another
character who doesn’t think through the possible consequences of her actions, in a novel full of such benighted figures — a lack of rigour is a cardinal sin in the Rendell universe, often carrying fatal consequences. As it does here: Carl’s thoughtless action leads to Stacey’s death and the subsequent ruination of his own life.
A tenant in Carl’s boarding house, the unpleasant Dermot (his yellowing teeth and pustules are perhaps an indicator of how Rendell wants us to think about him), has decided to stop paying rent . . . he has put two and two together regarding Carl’s involvement in Stacey’s death. We are soon in a maelstrom of lies, betrayal and murder that one might describe as “Highsmithian”, if the adjective “Rendellian” didn’t do equal service.
Rendell, who died last May, was never a comfortable writer. More than almost any other British novelist — and certainly more than her friend and fellow peer PD James — she delighted in probing the starker reaches of the human psyche: hers is a world in which all the comforting values that shore up our existence can be cruelly snatched away, particularly if we commit a criminal act. And Rendell’s work suggests that we are all capable of such impulses.
She is perhaps best known for her Chief Inspector Wexford novels, set in the fictional Kingsmarkham (and which generated a long-running television series). These are the nearest she came to the “cosy” field, but the books are actually nothing of the sort, despite the familiar apparatus of the police procedural in a picturesque setting; she never let herself be constrained by genre.
Her unsentimental view of human nature can also be seen in the rigorous standalones written under the nom-de-plume Barbara Vine.
As Dark Corners reminds us, Rendell was a fastidious craftswoman, who worked hard to avoid repeating devices from her earlier work and hated readers pointing out such infelicities. Her plots are always inventive and idiosyncratic, often with the nested structure of Chinese boxes that slowly reveal the carefully hidden secrets of people whose worlds are coming apart. Here we are given something like a valedictory summa of her work: the repercussions of Carl’s thoughtlessness spread like ripples in a pool, generating a seemingly endless series of sinister ramifications and drawing the characters ever deeper into compromise and danger.
Dark Corners is vintage Rendell in other ways too. She was always happy dealing with a large and variegated cast of characters, and the novel boasts a striking dramatis personae. Each is characterised with an attention to detail and nuance that is fully the equal of more “literary” novelists. The setting is also typical: a seedy part of Maida Vale that has been slightly spruced-up but whose peeling surfaces conceal flaws and decay — like many of her characters.
What a shame that we won’t be able to enter Rendell’s world again — except by rereading. But with writing of this calibre, that is no hardship.
Dark Corners, by Ruth Rendell, Hutchinson, RRP £18.99, 279 pages