Ruth Rendell’s final novel, Dark Corners, is about how psychological necessity can drive perfectly ordinary people either to terrible deeds or to unwitting acts of great courage — and extraordinary things can happen quite by chance to anyone.
Carl, the central character, is a young man pleased with his life. He has written a novel that has been published, inherited his father’s small mews house in Maida Vale with its furniture and, significantly, a large supply of alternative remedies in the bathroom cabinet, and has a beautiful, kindly girlfriend called Nicola. He does not have a job, but he does have a tenant, Dermot, on the top floor who pays him £1,200 a month — enough for Carl to contemplate life as a writer. Dermot, a thin young man with uneven yellow teeth, works as a receptionist at a local veterinary practice. He has a manner that wrong-foots Carl without him knowing quite how.
Carl also has a friend, Stacey, a model who has put on weight and wants to lose it without giving up her habit of binge-eating. He discovers some yellow pills among his father’s medicines that claim to melt excess fat. One of Carl’s traits is minor meanness where money is concerned, and although he knows he should offer Stacey the pills for free he can’t resist charging her £1 each for 50 of them.
When she is found dead of an overdose, guilt quickly turns to fright and fright to panic when he realises that Dermot has overheard his transaction with Stacey and has stopped paying his rent. Carl’s inability to deal with Dermot, and the rising mania that then engulfs him, is at the centre of the story.
There is also a subplot. Stacey has an old school friend called Lizzie whose own peculiarity is an idiosyncratic form of kleptomania. Knowing where Stacey keeps a spare key, Lizzie enters her flat and goes through her drawers, taking an out-of-date diary with Stacey’s name in it and a couple of £20 notes. Only then does she discover her friend’s body in the bedroom and report it to the police.
Lizzie is not only lazy but a pathological liar. She becomes a major figure in a story that fast descends into melodrama. This might not have mattered had I believed for a moment either her reactions to the twists and turns in the plot or her subsequent transformation into a pleasant, normal young woman. There is an air of unfinished business both about her character and the dramatic situation in which she finds herself that made me wonder whether the book was in the hands of the publisher before Rendell died at the beginning of May, or whether she might have intended to do more work on it.
Rendell’s ability to engender tension is fully present here, as always, but Dark Corners is not a book for which she will be remembered. There are plenty of those, among the psychological thrillers she wrote under her own name and as Barbara Vine, and among her groundbreaking Wexford detective novels, in which the crimes were solved by a middle-class policeman and family man. Her best psychological novels will still be read in 50 years’ time.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.99 Tel: 08430 600033