Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Birthday Present

A first person narrator is almost by definition an unreliable character. He or she will always be unaware of some necessary information. The Birthday Present includes two unreliable first person narrators. Rob Delgado, the main narrator, knows he's missing information and is particularly careful to point out what parts of his brother-in-law's life are known and what parts are speculation. The other narrator Jane Atherton the Alibi Lady, is losing her grip on reality.

Rising politician Ivor Tresham meets Hebe Furnal at a fundraiser for a charity her husband manages. They begin a brief affair which ends with her death in a car accident during a faked kidnapping - the titular 'birthday present' being an evening of 'adventure sex.' After an initial media frenzy focused on Hebe's husband, the press and the police decide that the real target of the kidnapping was a millionaire's wife who they hound into a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Joe and Iris Delgado observe while her brother tries to find out who knows that he was the mastermind behind the kidnapping.

Over the next three years, Ivor gradually becomes involved with the kidnapping survivors. A combination of guilt and fear leads him to track down Dermot Lynch, who survived the accident with severe brain injuries, and Juliet Case, the ex-girlfriend of Lloyd Freeman who died in the accident. Juliet's motivation for her affair with Ivor seems clear, but it's not - we see only what Joe Delgado sees and the depths of her feelings remain obscure until the climax. Similarly, we never truly know what Dermot Lynch's mother and brother know or believe, or whether Ivor's fear of blackmail is real or imagined.

Vine intersperses Jane Atherton's diary entries with Delgado's straight narrative. Hebe was Jane's best friend, or rather only friend. She's a lonely, rather mousy woman who was born to be used, first by Hebe and later by Hebe's husband Gerry, in part because she lets herself be used. She drifts through life with a sense of self pity and a bit of self-sabotage, and although she never crosses paths with Ivor, her actions indirectly set up Ivor's final act.

The car crash which was the ultimate end of the 'birthday present' is a good metaphor for the book - it's sort of like watching a slow-motion car crash. The events unfold slowly over 4 years, against the backdrop of the Conservative Party's gradual fall from power and a movement against tabloid sleaze. Ivor's fate was totally unexpected, but completely supported by what went before. I've read most of the books Ruth Rendell has written under the name Barbra Vine, and I'd rank this one second, directly and barely below A Dark Adapted Eye.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hide and Seek

A year or so after the events of Knots and Crosses, Edinburgh is booming. It's the late 80s and London transplants are conspicuously consuming. Rebus wants nothing to do with that (it's not in his nature, and he'd rather just solve the murder of a junkie found oddly posed in a squat), but a lunch devised to organize an anti-drug task force brings Rebus into contact with the top level of Edinburgh business society. When one of his dining companions commits suicide a few days later, and the murder victim's girlfriend mentions hidden photographs, Rebus suspects that the two deaths may be connected. He's right, and Hide and Seek is a compelling mystery with plenty of twists, red herrings, and dead ends. Eventually, Rebus solved the mystery (ahead of me - which is fairly rare) although justice is not served. For the most part, Hide and Seek lives up to the standards set by the first Rebus novel, but it does rely a bit too much on coincidence, especially in the final segment of the story.

Necropolis: London and Its Dead

For every person living in London, how many hundreds have been buried beneath the city? Enough that some of the Underground tunnels curve because the piles of buried, tangled bones were too dense to dig through. Catherine Arnold takes us on a tour of death, from the pre-Roman burial mounds through Roman funeral ceremonies, the mass graves of the Black Death, the scandals of overfilled and seeping cemeteries, the Victorian cult of mourning, and modern day practices. While generally interesting, Necropolis is essentially a survey of funeral practices, mentioning most and giving deep attention to few. I would have liked a little more detail, particularly about the rather morbid Victorians. Arnold has written three books (so far) about less savory aspects of London's history, and I hope her tours of madness and sin are a bit more enlightening.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Body in the Library

I don't believe in conspiracy theories. It's not because I'm particularly cynical (or at least I don't think that's the reason), or because I was a scientist before I went to law school, but because I don't think the average person or group of people can pull it off. Most people aren't smart enough to develop the plan and the rest are usually too confident in their plan (or arrogant) to bother with trouble shooting. So the plan fails - some minor detail seems 'off' to an uninterested observer and the elaborate plot comes crashing down.

I'm in the minority, though, and maybe it's because I've read so many Miss Marple books. The fluffy-bunny spinster has one of the most finely tuned BS detectors in fiction. She picks up minor non-verbal cues and inconsistencies, and wraps them in seemingly inconsequential stories of people who've lived in St. Mary Mead. I can see her today, gently pointing out the flaws in some of the crazier theories that bounce around the internet and shocking the younger, more 'aware' people around her when her assertions turn out to be true.

The Body in the Library is Miss Marple's second full length novel and her third appearance (she debuted in the short story collection The Tuesday Club Murders), and while she's a bit softer than she was in those books, she's still a bit of a sharp-tongued gossip rather than the 'sweet aunt Jane' we meet in later volumes. One morning, a maid wakes Miss Marple's friend Mrs. Bantry from an early morning dream to announce, "There's a body in the library!" Naturally, she sends her husband to investigate and yes, there's the body of a heavily made-up girl in a satin dress, lying on the hearthrug. The girl turns out to be a dancer at a near-by resort, not a 'lady' but coincidentally about to be adopted by Conway Jefferson, a wealthy friend of the Bantrys.

Mr. Jefferson's widowed daughter-in-law and son-in-law are the natural suspects, as are a movie studio employee who's recently relocated to St. Mary Mead, a rather stupid young man staying at the resort, and the resort's dance and tennis instructor. Add in a missing Girl Guide, a few careless comments about teeth and nails, and Miss Marple not only solves the crime but points out how and why the criminal tried to frame one suspect who, in a panic, threw suspicion onto the Bantrys. It's simple common sense, something distinctly lacking in today's world.