Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell

In common with many of this author’s other stand-alone novels of psychological suspense, Dark Corners traces the destructive connecting paths of a handful of characters. In this book, Rendell’s characters connect over a large house in Falcon Mews, Maida Vale inherited by 23-year-old writer, Carl Martin. Carl can’t believe his luck when he inherits the house; he’s just published his first crime book, Death’s Door, and hopes this is just the beginning of a long career. Renting out the top floor of the house, which is located in a very desirable area, will allow him to fund his life until his writing career takes off. Without much care, faced with twenty applicants, he accepts the very first one–Dermot, a rather unpleasant character who works at Sutherland Pet Clinic. Although Dermot seems to be the perfect tenant, quiet and single, Carl doesn’t particularly care for Dermot, but then he has no intention of being Dermot’s friend.

The plot thickens when Carl’s childhood friend, Stacey Warren, now a sitcom actress who has put on a lot of weight, begins complaining to Carl about her figure. Stacey, who has begun a cycle of eating to fill an emotional void, doesn’t want to “starve” herself and instead wants to try diet pills. As fate would have it, Carl has a stash at home:

For many years Wilfred Martin collected samples of alterative medicines, homeopathic remedies, and herbal pills. Most of them he never used, never even tried because he was afraid of them, but he kept the lot in a cupboard in a bathroom.

Carl never got around to throwing out all this old “junk” and on page one we’re told that this was a bad decision.

If he had known how it, or one particular item among all the rest, would change his life, transform it, ruin it, he would have emptied the lot into a plastic bag, carried the bag down the road, and dumped it in the big rubbish bin.

So right away Carl makes a couple of bad decisions (keeping the diet pills, and picking a creepy tenant), and he continues to make bad decisions throughout the book. Some of these bad decisions can be chalked up to youth and inexperience, and Carl, faced with an untenable situation in his home, becomes increasingly paranoid. Through a series of missteps which are permeated with guilt, he sinks into isolation, a dark corner,

Dark cornersStory threads that connect in some way to Carl include various secondary characters. There’s a pathological liar, the opportunistic Lizzie who has a slight acquaintance with Stacey, the sitcom actress, and Lizzie’s retired father, Tom, whose new hobby, riding buses on his free bus pass leads to some difficult experiences. There’s also Carl’s girlfriend Nicola, and Dermot’s creepy fiancée. The threads concerning Tom seemed a little disconnected to the main storyline–although Tom’s recognition, and avoidance, of his daughter’s behaviour are well done.

Since her late teens, when Tom had expected Lizzie to change, to grow up and behave, he had viewed his daughter with a sinking heart, only briefly pleased when she got into what she called “uni.” But her degree in media studies was the lowest grade possible while still remaining a BA. Gradually, as she moved from one pathetic job to another, ending up with the one she had now–teaching assistant, alternating with playground supervisor of after-school five -year-olds killing time until a parent came to collect them–he felt for his daughter that no father should feel: a kind of sorrowful contempt. He had sometimes heard parents say of their child that they loved her but didn’t like her and wondered at this attitude. He no longer wondered; he knew. Walking into the house in Mamhead Drive, he asked himself what lie she would tell that evening, and how many justifications for her behaviour she would trot out.

The novel examines Carl’s growing paranoia and the utter loneliness he experiences. Hugging a nasty secret to himself, he becomes convinced that murder is the only option. Dark Corners argues that the corrosive qualities of guilt are unbearable–at least for the normal person who has any sort of conscience. Committing murder is a solitary path to take–other crimes (such as those committed by Lizzie) offer a return ticket, but murder is an irrevocable one way trip for both the victim and the killer.

It’s a bitter-sweet experience to read Ruth Rendell’s last novel, Dark Corners, published after her death. We’ll never again read an Inspector Wexford novel and return to those much loved characters from Kingsmarkham. While Dark Corners is certainly highly readable and completed, there’s a feeling that it’s not quite as polished as her other novels, but for fans, this novel is still a last gift. Ruth Rendell has provided millions of readers with wonderful crime books for decades. Here in this final novel, Rendell includes topical subjects such as the last book shop “for miles around“, the demise of small business, the prevalence of questionable supplements, and terrorism.

Review copy

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

15 responses to “Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell

  1. Oh this review made me feel quite sad – I will, of course read Dark Corners, however it will indeed be a bittersweet experience to read, as you quoted in one example about the father’s view of his daughter, the voice she gives to ‘socially unacceptable’ views

  2. I don’t think I’ve read any of Rendell’s standalone novels, only a few of the Wexford novels many years ago. As you say, a final novel is a wonderful gift to her fans, albeit a very poignant one.

    Oddly enough, I’ve just watched a Francois Ozon film based on a Ruth Rendell short story: The New Girlfriend. Have you seen it? I wasn’t entirely convinced by the tone as it’s just a little frothy in places – maybe the story itself is darker.

  3. I share your sentiments, and those of others commenting here, about missing Ruth Rendell. I always liked the Inspector Wexford novels better than the stand-alones, but have been working my way through the latter category in recent months, and will certainly read Dark Corners. Just hard to believe I’ll never meet Reg Wexford and Mike Burden again.

  4. I think she was one of the first to write the crime novel in which we knew all along who dunnit and it’s a question of understanding why.

  5. It’s so sad that she’s gone. I suppose an not so polished novel by Rendell is still a treat. I’m sure I’ll get to this one sooner or later.

  6. No, I haven’t read Tree of Hands. I’ll go looking for it.

  7. Omitted from the “topical subjects” the author of this article lists is what I thought to be the central theme of Dark Corners: the housing crisis in London. I noted this when I studied abroad in London in 1998. 17 years later, this phenomenon appears to have gotten no better.

    Londoners were so desperate to live in Maida Vale that the rent alone, even at the “derisory” 1200 pounds would have allowed Carl to live well with no additional income. If he published another book, great, but it was just cream. Dermot did not blackmail Carl in the conventional way of demanding money month after month. “Inverted blackmail” was profitable enough: living in Carl’s upper floor rent-free.

    Lizzie abandoned her unshared apartment in Kilbourne to squat for as long as she could get away with it in her deceased friend’s posh flat.

    Dermot’s fiancee, Sybil, adopts the very same inverted blackmail scheme as her murdered betrothed as a means of taking up residence on Carl’s upper floor rent-free. She freely admits she could never afford the rent on her salary at Liddle’s, but she was looking for any way to move out of her parents’ house.

    Nicola moves back with Carl – knowing full well the role he played in Stacie’s death – after re-experiencing the cramped lifestyle of living in a dilapidated apartment with flatmates. The grandeur of his Falcon Mews flat is just too much of a draw. (Yes, this is a bit of an inference, but there was really no other explanation for her change of heart.)

    Sybil’s father, Cliff, in the two times we meet him, derides Carl by sheer virtue of his being a landlord. In Cliff’s mind, all landlords take advantage of the housing crisis by charging tenants too much rent for what they are providing. He recognizes that the income from rent, alone, can allow a landlord to subsist without any other employment or revenue, and he has utter contempt for the phenomenon and Carl and his ilk.

    Finally, Carl is so dependent upon the massive income that renting out his upper floor provides that he resorts to the ultimate sin when he is deprived of this rent.

    Rendell’s final piece is an indictment upon London’s housing crisis and the tragedies that can result from a society of haves and have-nots. In her view, squatting – at the very least – and murder at the opposite end of the spectrum – are natural consequences of this crisis. Somewhere in the middle are blackmail, kidnapping, and attempted murder, all of which appear in this novel. All of which are linked to flats, houses, and living accommodations in and around London.

    • Thank you for the comment. That’s an interesting interpretation, and I can certainly see the points you make. I frequently see housing being an issue in NY novels, how the cost of housing impacts relationships. I wasn’t in London in the 90s but I had friends who squatted there in the 70s.

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