My copy of The Thief, which has rather large print, is a morality tale about a young woman named Polly, who learns, as a child, that theft can be a way of exacting revenge. When we first meet Polly, she is 8 years old. Following Polly’s refusal to listen to her aunt, Polly is pulled aside and smacked for her behaviour. This is all done in a rather odd pathological manner, with the aunt leading Polly away, promising to “show” Polly something. Without speaking a word, Auntie Pauline smacks Polly “hard, ten sharp blows across her bottom.” Polly doesn’t tell her mother but instead, in revenge, Polly steals one of her aunt’s library books. …
Freud would probably love that story: Polly’s aunt doesn’t tell Polly WHY she’s smacking her and the incident is never addressed. It’s tucked away neatly into Polly’s psyche and theft becomes a rewarding way of behaving whenever Polly is upset, humiliated or thwarted. It’s a covert way of getting her own back. A method of empowerment.
In adulthood, Polly doesn’t mend her ways … that is until she meets Alex:
She mostly told him the truth. It wasn’t hard to be truthful with him.
He is making me a better person, she said to herself.
Polly flies to New York to attend a wedding and is unfortunate enough to sit next to an obnoxious man called Trevor Lant. He’s a nightmare passenger and these days would be thrown off the plane (serve him right too). He makes a nuisance of himself and then hits on Polly. When she dismisses his advances, Trevor humiliates her, making her journey hell, but what’s even worse, he’s there on the plane for the return trip.
Faced with Trevor’s aggression, Polly strikes back and she reverts to her old behaviour. When the opportunity arises, she steals Trevor’s suitcase. …
Due to the short length of the story, events pile upon each other rapidly. This is not Rendell’s best work but should appeal to fans. Rendell is fascinated with the motivations for crimes, the dirty little secrets that spill out despite efforts to contain and control them. In The Thief, Polly finds it easier to revert to her old behaviours, and then once she is on that old, well-trodden path, she finds it impossible to find another way. In the past Polly has dealt with people by stealing (and lies), and all of these incidents have ended with Polly feeling a hollow triumph, but this time, she crosses paths with someone who makes her look like an amateur.