Monday, January 14, 2013

Ruth Rendell Upstages Two Recently Acclaimed Debut Writers

Belinda Bauer and Liza Klaussmann 
range in quality and style, but Ruth Rendell 
delivers brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly

Rendell, Bauer, and Klaussmann
     Blacklands by Belinda Bauer was the winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2010 (this is the British counterpart to the American Edgar Awards).  It’s a page-turner in the best sense and I finished it in two sittings on Labor Day.  It’s a very tightly drawn work that cuts back and forth between a boy trying to deal with his family’s despair and the imprisoned serial child killer who murdered his uncle.  I knew from the beginning where it was going, but the suspense is taut.  Bauer examines the serial killer’s mental state well, but I’ve seen that before.  Where she excels is in showing an ordinary boy having the courage to become
someone extraordinary.

"I Think I Prefer This One. Must Be the Title."
     I’d read a rapturous review of Tigers in Red Weather in Entertainment Weekly this summer.  Since I bought it in hardcover, I felt forced by myself to read it.  I’m a slow but thorough reader, and it still took me three weeks.  Liza Klaussmann is the type of author who’s considered a stylist.  What this means is that the plot is either confusing or non-existent, the characters either are not well drawn or don’t cohere, but the reader is still engaged enough to plow on because the author writes sentences, descriptions, and observes so well.  In this case, the plot seems to be adding up to much more than it actually does because the characters don’t quite stay in focus. 

     The story goes from World War II through 1969 and moves between five characters from an upper-middle/lower-upper class WASP family spending summers in their inherited manse on Martha’s Vineyard.  It may sound like a potential epic of family life in war and peace, but it’s not.  Instead, it’s about two female cousins who live together during World War II, get married, and have a child each.  Much of the plot revolves around the summer of 1959, when the children find a dead body, though it’s not accidental and it has reverberations over the next decade as Klaussman fitfully builds suspense by indirectly revealing information about the main characters.  The problem is that most of the back-story has very little to do with this incident and the conflicts it engenders.  A sequence in England during World War II seems both warmed over and it has little to do with what comes after.  Yes, there’s an affair and, yes, the wronged wife is resentful about it for years, but it doesn’t quite ring true with everything else we find out about that extremely intriguing wife.  I wish the whole book had been written either from her point of view or focused more exclusively on her.

     Klaussmann’s composure recalls the psychologically inner directed method of Henry James or Edith Wharton in examining a specific niche of the wealthy or connected.  Where it doesn’t work is in the suspense tropes that she attempts.  She is outdone by one of the great British writers, Ruth Rendell, who once again astounds in The St. Zita Society.  I read her most recent Chief Inspector Wexford novels (Monster in a Box and The Vault) this summer.  Both of these refer to earlier works in Rendell’s career, though they stand alone in terms of plot.  The Vault’s forebear is A Sight for Sore Eyes and, as I wrote in an earlier article, it’s a corker.

     The St. Zita Society tells of a group of contemporary servants working in a number of residences on an exclusive street in the west end of London.  Rendell tantalizes with an actual location, which seems to be somewhere between Belgravia and Knightsbridge.   For those of us who love Downton Abbey, Rendell ironically and mordantly constructs a kaleidoscope of relationships between those who serve and those who employ them that undercuts both rationality and the British TV series’ attitudes of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘we’re all in this together’.  The households are layered, detailed, and based on a system of tacit negotiations that reflect a society in greater flux than it initially appears.  The class differences are not so apparent and the characters’ social and professional roles are multidimensional.  Rendell accomplishes all this and still pulls off a suspense plot that is subtle, shocking, and hilarious.  The centerpiece consists of two people trying to hide a dead body and, like Hitchcock, the thrill is in wondering if they’ll succeed or not and in simultaneously hoping they will and that they’ll be caught.   

     Rendell’s newest, The Child’s Child, as her alter ego Barbara Vine has just been released and it looks like another winner.

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