I didn’t red Ruth Rendell until I was 19. There was a reason for this. Growing up with a fervent devotion to Agatha Christie, I would often come across critiques from other crime writers (these were very fashionable up to the 2000s, and some of the big names now claiming her as their greatest inspiration started out saying she was awful, or pretending they hadn’t even heard of her). Rendell seemed particularly virulent, and I also read that she never planned her novels. So, child-me figured, if she didn’t understand the master and her own books took that little effort to write, I wouldn’t bother reading them.
This is of course a childish and petty attitude to take, and alarmingly some Christie enthusiasts who are adults still take it. Obviously, I had no understanding then about the mechanics of writing, and less still did I understand that the Toryistic fan scholarship I was reading took extra efforts to make Rendell look bad or jealous because she was a left-wing peer. It never occurred to me that P.D. James, for example, said worse, less-informed things about Christie, and managed to share a fan-base – because she was a Tory.
I had a few of Rendell’s books lying around from an early age. When I got my first serious romantic partner, who was a big fan of hers, I gifted him a copy of The Rottweiler I’d had since I was fourteen (it was a signed first edition). Before wrapping it up – wrapping up gifts is something that should always be done – I flicked through the first chapter and ended up reading the whole thing in a night. I was annoyed with myself that I loved it, and confused when I went online and read that it was considered one of her worst.
A few months later, our wonderful, incredible, fantastic university lecturer Dr Sally West made us read A Dark-Adapted Eye, Rendell’s most famous work as Barbara Vine, which left me speechless. It’s a haunting and bitterly true psychological novel. I went straight to a library and found A Judgement in Stone, the first line of which has been widely quoted in crime fiction studies, and at that point I grew up. I was a fan, and there was no use denying it.
Since I seem to have forgotten that this is a review blog, here is another diversion. The University of Chester, where I was an undergraduate, gave me the kind of social education, woven into academic betterment, that is not managed elsewhere. My two departments, Theology & Religious Studies and English, were communities and the staff’s accessibility was a vital part of that. I’ve named Sally West specifically but each lecturer there was a vital part of my personal and professional growth. I’ve been angered to hear about the threats of redundancies in these departments, and the cruel ways these threats are being communicated. For more information, follow the hashtag #NoRedundanciesChester and the University of Chester UCU on social media.
On to The Secret House of Death (1968). How I got hold of this book is a long story, the full details of which make it one for a tell-all memoir rather than fodder for a blog post. The short version is that some years ago I had to write a magazine article, under a famous name, about books. The credited author gave me notes including one to the effect that The Secret House of Death contains one of the greatest twists of any novel ever. I dutifully wrote the piece and then bought all the books they/I had recommended because they all sounded so good. I read two, which I thought were awful, and forgot about it, so the rest gathered dust.
Fast-forward to April 2021 and I’d just submitted a monstrously long manuscript on Christie which had occupied my every waking (and sleeping) non-day-job hour for some time. I saw The Secret House of Death with its silly Shakespearean title, remembered the warm words I’d had for its twist, and dug in.
First things first. There is no twist. Unless you count the revelation that you’ve been seeing things in the wrong light – surely the bare minimum for good crime fiction – as a twist. It is a straightforward, but excellent, psychological mystery. It’s clued, it’s solvable, it’s surprising, and it’s insightful. It does not contain the greatest twist in literature. It does not contain the greatest twist in crime fiction. It does not even contain the greatest twist in Rendell. Check out her short stories for superb examples of what I call the ‘double twist’: the twist you’re kind of expecting followed by an absolute blind-sider, often in the last line.
There is a 1980s TV adaptation, which I haven’t seen, and that may well be twisty. The blurb for that sounds more like a domestic noir type thing – think Love from a Stranger – so maybe that’s what this famous person was thinking of. It’s a good reminder that a lot of people who recommend books in magazines etc. haven’t read them and have at best seen the adaptations.
But this is about the book. Our main protagonist is Susan Townsend (not Sue Townsend – nowhere near as humorous for one thing). A recently-divorced mother, she tries to keep herself to herself and doesn’t get involved in gossip about the affair going on between her neighbour Louise and Bernard, a handyman/salesman. One day, Susan is forced into the midst of things when she discovers Louise and Bernard in bed together. They are fully clothed but also fully dead. It looks like murder-suicide.
The police are not convinced but the narrative oscillates between efforts to unravel what really happened and Susan’s emotional reaction to the scene. She soon becomes close to Bob, Louise’s widower, who asks her to burn Bernard’s romantic letters, which he’s recovered.
Since it’s obvious to any crime fiction reader by now that something’s up, I don’t need to tell you to be suspicious of letters which begin ‘My dearest one’ and never mention specific names.
Rendell here is on absolutely top form, getting into the sprawling absurdity of human psychology beneath polite interactions. A traumatic event like a murder-suicide makes polite small talk both necessary – for continuity – and impossible, and Rendell captures this brilliantly:
‘Were you busy? Am I interrupting something?’
‘Of course not.’ His loss made him different from other men, a. pariah, someone you had to treat warily, yet appear to be no different. She wanted to behave both as if the tragedy had never happened and at the same time as if he were deserving of the most solicitous consideration. An odd reflection came to her, that it was impossible to feel much pity for anyone a good-looking as bob. […] If the tragedy hadn’t happened and he had called her like this, she would have felt ill-at ease alone with him.
A fantastically complex but concise look at the bizarre, ridiculous mental leaps behind three words.
Sometimes, though, Rendell goes a bit O.T.T., tries too hard:
‘Well?’ It could be a warm word, a word denoting health or things excellently done, but she made it the coldest in the world. On her lips it was onomatopoeic, a well indeed, a place of deep, dark and icy waters.
I don’t know. I think, ‘“Well?” she said coldly’ would have done.
The language is more dated that you might expect. Although sixties slang, the kind that Christie or James would never have entertained, is peppered throughout, a rough bartender still cries ‘good gracious!’ and Susan feels sorry for women in their forties because they don’t get catcalled by builders as much as teenaged girls do. Rendell was writing impossibly old-fashioned prose by the 1990s and her fiction has always been fundamentally, though self-awarely, middle class.
However, isolating this last incident belies the social commentary in the novel. When read in its totality, and accepting that being the protagonist does not make Susan automatically right or virtuous (Rendell takes ‘think the worst about everyone’ to extremes), the book’s message is a profound one about how ready we are to blame women for men’s shortcomings. How easily we believe narratives about women’s disgrace. How willingly we let men manipulate us and what we see.
In homage to child-me, I feel the need to point out, cheekily, that when The Secret House of Death was published, another novel, featuring a similar solution with identical moral commentary, was hiding in a vault to be published after it’s author’s death. That book was Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie.