The Minotaur, by Barbara Vine

Fresh Swedish air in a very English house of horrors
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The Independent Culture

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However much modern psychology affects their work, British writers still have a fascination with the country-house mystery. Indeed, this extends to what is normally regarded as serious literature, for example in Ian McEwan's Atonement. Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, leaves her usual London territory and revisits the genre in The Minotaur. Here, the labyrinth turns out to be that splendid old fictional war-horse: the country-house library.

Lydstep Old Hall is covered in ivy, full of creaking noises and locked rooms, and reminiscent of Gothic terrors in the fictional houses built by the Brontës. Since the Barbara Vine persona inevitably indicates an extra degree of creepiness, the library has alarming twists and turns. Only the most hardened of readers could bear not to read on.

In addition, the disorienting setting is reflected in the personality of the narrator, a young Swedish girl who arrives as a companion to the mentally-disturbed son of the house. He is kept permamently catatonic through powerful tranquillisers administered by his mother.

A splendidly sane heroine, Kerstin is an outsider, mystified by certain English habits and rituals. She has the misfortune to encounter the whole country-house cast: the bitchy, snobbish matriarch; the desperate spinster daughters; the bumbling vicar, and the old family physician. They are in fact pickled in time, for this is a skilful historical novel set in the late 1960s. It is an era which now seems almost as far removed from ours as the 1860s, and a world utterly bewildering - even at that time - to an open-minded, independent Scandinavian.

Refusing to accept the role of a servant, by which she would also become the complaisant observer of gross patient-abuse, Kerstin tries to sort out some of the problems of this nasty family, only to receive reprimands and dismissal for her pains. But she has kept a diary, in which she has been making sketches of the household. Her objective record becomes the resolution to this mystery, supplying vital clues when at last a murder becomes the subject of a police investigation.

Most crime fiction starts with a body; in this case, the murder is cunningly withheld until late in the book, as is the identity of the killer, so that the reader is kept in suspense throughout. One member, perhaps two, of this utterly dysfunctional family is a murderer, but since everyone is perfectly capable of framing everyone else, it is almost impossible to work out who was involved until the very end.

I take issue on one small point: "What fresh hell is this?" was surely Dorothy Parker's telephone greeting, and nothing to do with Virgina Woolf, as Vine implies. (The line itself is a parody of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest.) But this is a quibble: The Minotaur is a lovely, solid and traditional read; vintage wine from the Rendell Vine.

Jane Jakeman's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan

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