Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sins of the Fathers

A few weeks ago, I realized that fiction written in the last third of the 20th Century can fall into an uncanny valley.  It's familiar but foreign.  I filter most of the 1970s through childhood and the 1980s through the inward focus of a teenager and college student, but I recognize the landmarks.  Ruth Rendell's early novels fall slightly outside that range.  They're not-quite-old movies and TV shows I saw on UHF channels on rainy weekends.

Rendell was rightly lauded for bringing a psychological edge to the mystery novel, but it makes her earlier works rather dated.  Henry Archery's son is engaged to the daughter of a convicted murderer.  A brilliant and charming Oxford student, she can't (according to the common knowledge of the day) be the child of such a brute.  Using this logic, Archery asks Inspector Wexford to reopen the case, one of Wexford's first, and exonerate Herbert Painter of the viscous murder of his employer, the elderly Mrs. Primero.  Rendell provides us, and Archery, with alternative suspects (the victim's grandson, an unstable local woman) and motivations (money), but the twist is itself a twist.  The conclusion of Sins of the Fathers conforms to the beliefs of the day, but upends two things that we think we know at the start of the book.

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