Doors Open (Mystery/Crime) by Ian Rankin, 2008
Although Ian Rankin is one of the most highly rated mystery writers of our time – thanks to his very successful series
of novels featuring Inspector Rebus – I haven’t read much of him. The one Rebus book that I do remember reading
struck me as clever and well-constructed but a little too complicated in the way it delved into nefarious events in the past
as explanations of present wrong-doing. So maybe this non-Rebus book would please me more....?
It’s set in contemporary Edinburgh. Three pals – an art professor, a bored millionaire and a banker –
decide to steal some important paintings from the storehouse of the National Gallery. By way of motivation, there’s
the fact that they’d each like to own some works that they could never buy. But the more decisive thrust comes from
the professor, who likes to think that they’re "liberating" these works which would otherwise be cooped up in darkness
forever. Although the social positions of these guys would seem to give their project the status of "white collar crime,"
they do have to solicit the participation of some members of the underworld of Edinburgh.
I found the first part of the book, the setting up and plotting of the crime, rather laboured and slow. It seemed that
the writer was having trouble getting the wheels in motion. It particularly bothered me that the somewhat unusual motivation
for the theft never seemed quite convincing or plausible. But the book had opened with a flash-forward to a very violent scene.
You knew, then, that things were going to go badly. My curiosity about how that would come down was enough to make me hang
in. Once the thieves’ plan is activated, Mr. Rankin has a knack for making things more and more complicated, for throwing
in twists and surprises that increase the tension and make the story more compelling – with the result that the book
turns out to be a very good read.
Ladies’ Man (Novel) by Richard Price, 1978
I’d never heard of Richard Price until The New Yorker recently published a rave write-up about his work. Turns
out he’s a very successful author of several novels and screenplays; he has also written for the acclaimed TV series,
The Wire. Most of his books, it appears, have to do with crime and the underside of life in the New York area. This
early one, published nearly forty years ago, isn’t about crime, as such, but it certainly does dwell in the seedier
environs of New York, such as they were in the 1970s.
Our hero and first-person narrator is Kenny Becker, a thirty-something guy who is living with a woman he calls La Donna.
She wants to be a club singer but Kenny, with his sardonic humour, lets us know that she sucks when it comes to performing.
Still, he’s trying as well as he can to support her in her ambition. Kenny has some far-fetched hopes of becoming an
English teacher some day; meanwhile he’s schlepping through life as a door-to-door salesman. It would be giving away
too much to say anything more about what happens, other than that his life is starting to fall apart around him.
At first, I was wary of some aspects of the book that made it seem rather dated. For instance, that gig of Kenny’s
as a door-to-door salesman. He peddles various kinds of household gadgets that housewives would presumably find enticing.
Was it possible than anybody was making a living doing that in the 1970s? Maybe in Manhattan. I dunno. Then there’s
Kenny’s attitude to his girlfriend. It was looking like this was going to be another instance of the old narrative cliché, wherein you have this hunky, intelligent guy who’s stuck with this flaky female whom
he can’t ditch because she stirs up such irresistible sexual passion in him. However, it would be fair to say, to Mr.
Price’s credit as a writer, that the situation becomes more complex in this case and that the female figure does turn
out to be a strong individual in her own right, not just a figment of a male writer’s imagination.
Another feature of the book that might be considered passé – offensively so –
would be Kenny’s attitude to gay men. He scoffs at them and frequently refers to them as "faggots." Again, however,
without wanting to give away too much, it has to be said that Kenny’s views on gay culture come in for a thorough
revision. Granted, some of Kenny’s exploration reads a bit like a touristic visit to some of the most titillating hot
spots of the day. His take on all that looks a bit sensationalist now; I don’t think any of us need to
be informed about some of the wilder things going on out there. But it’s not hard to see how this stuff would be quite
the eye-opener for lots of readers back in the 1970s.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t still have a legitimate artistic purpose in Mr. Price’s novel. Kenny’s
encounter with that scene has much to do with his development as a character. And Mr. Price keeps us reading eagerly to find
out just where the next turn is going to take Kenny. This, my first encounter with Mr. Price, shows him to be a
The Girl Next Door (Mystery/Crime) by Ruth Rendell, 2014
Rather than the typical whodunnit, this book is more like the novels that Ruth Rendell writes under the pseudonym "Barbara
Vine." In those books, we often know at the outset what the crime is or who committed it; the intrigue has to do with how
the crime is eventually discovered, or how the perpetrator is uncovered, or consequences further down the road.
Here, we open with a double murder around the time of the Second World War. A man kills his wife and her lover. On
a whim, the murderer cuts a hand off each of his victims’ bodies, then places the two hands in a tin biscuit box and
stashes it in an underground tunnel (which turns out to be part of an abandoned building project). Subsequently, he marries
into money, becomes a widower, and lives in a posh retirement home. Seventy years after his dastardly deed, the severed hands
are discovered in the tunnel. DNA is used to try to identify the deceased. Some adults who had played in the tunnel as kids
are brought together to see if they can come up with any helpful clues about who might have deposited the hands there.
Up to the halfway point in this book, I was hoping to be able to report the good news that Ruth Rendell, at the age of
eighty-something, can still turn out a very good mystery. As a crime story, with its multiple facets, this one is fascinating.
However, it gradually becomes less and less of a mystery. After we’ve met the detective who is investigating the puzzle
about the hands, there’s no mention of him for more than a hundred pages. Instead, we focus on developments in the lives
of the people who had been playmates in the tunnel many years ago. They meet, they chat and an old passion is re-kindled;
some of them get sick, some of them die, they go their separate ways, they move on. In the way that these people are so available
to each other for frequent meetings, the book reminds me very much of the oeuvre of Iris Murdoch. In her books, you sometimes
wonder if people have anything to do – any jobs, any duties or responsibilities – other than kibitzing with each
other. But their exchanges and the complications in their relationships make the books very worthwhile.
The same cannot be said for these people. Their affairs are never more than mildly interesting, their pronouncements seldom
thought-provoking. It is rather engaging, mind you, to follow the unconventional life of the son of the murderer. And
Ms. Rendell has some things to say about contemporary attitudes to marriage and gender roles in her account of the old
love affair that's re-ignited. But some members of the group – two brothers and their wives, for instance –
never come into focus as people you can care about.
Too often, one or another of the members of the group marvels at the fact that the discovery of the two severed hands brought
all these people together after so many years. Unfortunately, their reunion doesn’t prove to be so marellous for
the reader. Admittedly, the thread of the mystery about the hands still runs through the story. We do wonder how the
nasty old codger who did the deed will be caught. And there are a few neatly contrived developments leading to his being found.
Since the book is much less about that story, however, than about the not-very-gripping lives of the former playmates, I would
have to say that it’s not a great success.