Friday, October 9, 2009

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy

I've read none of the books Ruth Rendell has written under her own name.  She's one of the modern masters, but there are only so many books I can read and her Inspector Wexler mysteries haven't made it on to my shelf.  I have read several of the psychological thrillers she has written as Barbara Vine, but I've also put two of them down after a few chapters.  Gallowglass never grabbed me,  but A Dark Adapted Eye is a near perfect mystery and I couldn't put down The Blood Doctor.  Her 1998 novel The Chimney Sweeper's Boy falls in between the poles - I enjoyed it, but it's not a classic.

Gerald Candless is a famous author in failing health.  At one time he was charming and well-reviewed, but he's become a shadow of himself; his latest novels have been released with little notice and he seems to get most of his pleasure from being rude to the younger writers who make the pilgrimage to his Devon home.  Gerald dies the night after one of these hazing luncheons, and his publisher asks his daughters to write a memoir of their beloved father.  Hope, a successful attorney, is too distraught to even attempt to write about her father so Sarah, a university lecturer, takes on the task.  She soon learns that the real Gerald Candless died as a child and her father assumed his name and identity when he began writing his unacknowledgedly autobiographic novels.

While Sarah tries to unravel her father's true identity, Vine tells the parallel story of Candless's widow, Ursula.  Forty years earlier, Ursula was a sheltered young woman, the youngest child by a decade of a comfortably affluent family.  What she didn't realize, but the reader can easily see, is that Candless was deeply closeted and married both for the public image and to have children.  His daughters were the center of his life, and after their birth, Ursula's only use to him was as material for a novel.  Vine mixes memories of the Candlesses' unhappy marriage with fragments of Gerald Candless's works and the slow development of Ursula's new relationship with a 60ish bookseller.  

I enjoyed The Chimney Sweeper's Boy but I was never surprised by it, and that's what separates it from Vine's better works.  Her best books leave the main mystery open ended, but each passage from Gerald's novels gives just a little too much information for the final chapter to be a surprise.