A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES and THE VAULT, both by Ruth Rendell
(Reviews by Deb)
(Reviews by Deb)
(SPOILER ALERT: I have tried very hard to avoid spoilers in writing about these two books, particularly A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES; but because one book involves the investigation of a major event from the other, there is no way to steer clear of describing a few key plot points. I’ve noted the paragraph where potential spoilers lurk. Please don’t read them if knowledge of those points would make it difficult for you to enjoy the books.)
A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES (1995) is a Ruth Rendell “standalone”—that is, a self-contained novel that does not feature her recurring character, Chief Detective Inspector Reg Wexford of the Kingsmarkham police force. In fact, with its psychological suspense, fateful coincidences, and essentially unresolved ending, SIGHT is much more in the vein of the books that Rendell publishes under her alternate pseudonym of Barbara Vine. THE VAULT (2011), on the other hand, is a Rexford novel, but functions as a sequel of sorts to SIGHT. Although you do not have to have read A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES in order to enjoy THE VAULT, having read SIGHT makes reading THE VAULT a richer experience.
In the trademark Rendell/Vine plot device of introducing unrelated characters whose lives do not appear to intersect in any fashion, we meet the main characters of A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES: First is Harriett Merton, a dissatisfied middle-aged wife. She lives in Orcadia Cottage, a lovely old house made famous in the 1970s when Harriet and her then-boyfriend, a rock superstar, were painted in front of it by a well-known artist. When her relationship with the rock singer dissolved, Harriett married the wealthy Franklin Merton who purchased Orcadia Cottage for them, seeing as even his wealth could not meet the asking price of the famous painting. “A fine thing,” he grumbles, “when you can afford the house but not a painting of the house.” All this happened in the early 1970s; by 1995, the Mertons are leading separate lives and Harriett’s boredom has led her to indulge in casual affairs, mostly with tradesmen that she meets by finding their ads in the Yellow Pages and getting them to the house under the pretext of needing repair work done.
Then there is Teddy Brex, a young man raised in both financial and emotional poverty. Rendell possibly dwells too much on the squalor of Teddy’s upbringing—living in a filthy, cramped house with his apathetic father, mentally-limited mother, and an uncle whose only passion is for his prized vintage Edsel—but this emphasis highlights the contrast between Teddy’s environment and the man he becomes, one with artistic talent, an eye for good design, and perfectionism in creating furniture and doing period-appropriate architectural repairs. Teddy is also quite good-looking and attracts the eyes of the women in his university classes, but he has no use for them. His emotional isolation and quest for perfection leave him disgusted with what the reader perceives to be the normal interest of modern young women.
In a far more prosperous suburb, we are introduced to Francine, a young woman who has suffered an enormous trauma: As a child of six, she witnessed her mother’s murder and later inadvertently destroyed some key evidence in the case. Francine’s father has long since remarried and Francine’s step-mother—a former therapist with her own past problems—has been so overly protective of her step-daughter that, at almost 20, Francine is still as innocent and sheltered as a pre-teen; she has never been on a date and any events she attends with school friends must be approved by her step-mother.
When Francine is permitted to go to an art show, she meets Teddy Brex, who has won an award for a mirror frame he has designed. They are attracted to each other for all the wrong reasons. To Teddy, the fragile, innocent Francine personifies his ideal of the perfect women, not at all aware that this ideal has been created out of his own isolation and cannot stand exposure to the real world; while Francine sees in Teddy a way to become more worldly and experienced, not realizing that his experience is almost as limited as hers and that he is damaged even more than she by the emotional deprivation of his childhood and family life. Each of them has had too little experience of the opposite sex to understand that they are projecting wildly unrealistic expectations onto the other, but the reader knows and is uncomfortably aware that things can only end badly for them.
That bad end begins when Harriett randomly selects Teddy’s Yellow Pages ad and asks him to come to Orcadia Cottage to give her an estimate on some restoration work. Unlike Teddy, the reader knows that Harriett’s real goal is to determine if Teddy would be a good candidate for an affair. As Teddy walks through Harriett’s home, a home he immediately loves because of its outstanding design and architecture, Harriett’s propositions to the handsome young man become more obvious—obvious to anyone with some experience of human interaction, not someone like Teddy, who remains oblivious to Harriett’s innuendo. And so a comedy of cross-purposes begins: Harriet trying to seduce Teddy and Teddy trying to determine exactly what in the house needs repair.
To say more about how the lives of Harriett, Teddy, and Francine intertwine would be unfair—but Orcadia Cottage is the focus of what happens and Teddy’s uncle’s beloved Edsel also plays a role. We know that things will definitely end badly for some of the characters, but it is only in THE VAULT that the police become aware of and have to investigate what has happened.
THE VAULT takes place 12 years after the events of A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES have come to a close. The novel begins with DCI Wexford now retired and no longer living in Kingsmarkam—the location for almost all of the Wexford novels. With his wife, Dora, Wexford is living in London, in an upscale home owned by his daughter Sheila, a wealthy actress. If you’re familiar with London, you’ll enjoy Rendell’s descriptions of some of its many areas—Muswell Hill, Shepherd’s Bush, Finsbury Park, Kensington, Hampstead, St. John’s Wood—and the social and architectural traits that define each one. To facilitate this mini-travelogue, Rendell has Wexford do a tremendous amount of walking—more than he has ever done in any other book, so that the previous bane of Wexford’s life—his on-going struggle to maintain a healthy weight—is no longer an issue.
(WARNING: The following paragraph contains spoilers.)
When four bodies are discovered in an unused coal cellar under Orcadia Cottage, Scotland Yard asks Wexford to help them with their investigations. Three of the bodies are determined to have been dead for over ten years (if you’ve read A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES, you’re already familiar with this part of the story); but the fourth body has only been in “the vault” (as Wexford thinks of it) for about two years. To a reader familiar with SIGHT, this forth body presents a new mystery; while, to the police, all four deaths are newly-discovered and have to be investigated. And so Wexford goes about trying to determine the identity of the dead and why they ended up where they were found. One of the interesting elements of the book—and the reason why I believe that reading this book would be a richer experience if you’ve already read SIGHT—is seeing how Wexford investigates what happened, including various dead ends and conclusions that only the reader knows are either right or wrong. The Edsel from A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES makes an appearance, as does the framed mirror that was the start of Teddy and Francine’s relationship.
As Wexford continues on his “unofficial” investigation, back in Kingsmarkham, his divorced social worker daughter, Sylvia (a strident type who no one—including Wexford or the reader—can generate much sympathy for), is brutally attacked by her former lover, a much younger man. This brings Rexford and Dora back to Kingsmarkham to help Sylvia while she recovers. This in turn keeps the action moving between London and the Wexford’s home town. (Frankly, I think Rendell could easily have jettisoned the entire Sylvia subplot without harming the book at all.)
As usual in Rendell’s Wexford books, certain social/cultural issues come to the fore and are examined through the prism of one or more characters. In THE VAULT, this issue is the sexual exploitation of women from former Soviet states who are smuggled into England and who, being without passports or the appropriate papers, are then forced to work in the sex trade (which is apparently thriving behind many of the doors of restored neo-Georgian houses in the London suburbs). This element of the book involves several very unsavory characters, most of them also connected in some way to the building trade—which dovetails into the repair work that the current owners of Orcadia Cottage (with none of Harrett Merton’s ulterior motives) were trying to get done when the bodies were discovered. Rexford must determine which of the several contractors and repairmen who visited Orcadia Cottage saw the bodies in the cellar and, instead of calling the police immediately, decided it would be a good place to dump another one.
As befitting a Wexford novel, eventually the pieces of the puzzle are put together and a plausible scenario and suspect emerge. In addition, we are briefly reacquainted with a character from A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES who, we are happy to learn, is now working in a professional capacity and has a spouse and child. Both SIGHT and THE VAULT are well-written books and can be enjoyed when read alone, but reading them in sequence provides an altogether deeper reading experience.
This book takes place in one of those little towns in the Finger Lakes section of New York State near Utica. The town has been losing jobs and people for half a century. But disappearances suddenly are not due to a lack or jobs or a desire for more cultural offerings. Janice McNeal, a woman of ill repute, is murdered in her own home, her arm amputated. Her son, though seemingly bereft, arouses suspicion when he bites off a classmate's ear. Next three young girls vanish inexplicably, bundles of their clothes later turning up.
A Marxist study group at the local college and a vigilante squad of rednecks also comes under suspicion. The unnamed narrator, a high-school biology teacher, secretly keeps a collection of nasty objects submerged in formaldehyde (Remind anyone of WALKING DEAD). No one here is beyond or above suspicion. Some sort of mass hysteria has come about, reminding the reader of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP.
This book examines the sort of hysteria that can overtake a small isolated community. Despite its title, it's a horror story-- a vivid and scary tale from the author of the Charlie Bradshaw Saratoga Springs crime fiction novels. Dobyns is also a poet. This is, no doubt, his darkest book.
You can find more links for forgotten books over at Todd Mason's blog, right here.
MY REVIEW OF AMOUR is right here.