radio review

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The Independent Culture
Smarties have changed. It was a shock when they introduced the blue ones, but that's nothing compared to the tube I bought yesterday (purely in the interests of research): it was a violent pink, with silly cartoons and the joke "What's pink and dangerous? Shark-infested Smarties" - a weak variation on the classic shark-infested custard gag; while a small number of the Smarties inside were overprinted with boats, palm trees, etc. But some things are constant: above all, I have never seen a Smartie filled with plain chocolate.

Now look at this dialogue from yesterday's episode of the current dramatisation of Barbara Vine's novel King Solomon's Carpet on Radio 4. A small girl is eating Smarties with her grandmother: "I'll only have the orange ones" she says. "Why's that?" asks her grandmother. "They're nicest," the girl answers: "They've got milk chocolate inside and taste of orange. All the other colours have plain chocolate and taste the same."

This is a trivial example of what's odd about Barbara Vine's novels (and some of the ones written as Ruth Rendell): they're slightly dislocated from reality. The topographical precision - street names and recognisable landmarks - fool you into thinking her stories are set in the real world. That's especially true of King Solomon's Carpet, which is bound up with the history and geography of London's Underground. But the social types, the clothes they wear and the language they speak, are never quite right; you feel she's describing a planet very like our own.

This isn't to demean Rendell/Vine; simply to say that her talent shouldn't be characterised as realistic. What she does is more a kind of conjuring trick - cleverly contrived patter to distract you from what's really going on. In this respect, she's found the ideal adapter in Nick Fisher, master of the tricksy radio thriller. It's fun, but not remotely real, and therefore not very threatening; more a sort of crisp-coated confectionery.