The burden in the boot

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell Hutchinson, pounds 16.99, 320pp; Frances Fyfield argues that the mistress of suspense is marking time
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The Independent Culture
RUTH RENDELL has a penchant for hopelessness, reminiscent of Anita Brookner. They both write about fixed lives unable to step outside the tangent on which they find themselves trapped; people incapable of turning back the clock set ticking by childhood influences, and therefore prisoners of their circumstances. If the clock should strike, and remind them of the possibility of a great bound for freedom, they are in the kitchen, washing a mug and suddenly beyond hearing distance of the chime.

At best, such characters stimulate the compassion that is essential to suspense; or - as they drag others down - they infuriate, in an equally useful way from the novelist's point of view; or they form part of the plot where others will live beyond them; or they simply have a fascinating life of their own. Brookner does that, creating bleak landscapes full of tears and fury. Rendell and her alter ego Barbara Vine have certainly done it, par excellence.

But not in this written-on-the-wing book. Despite its excellent later plot, the neat construction and the powerful images, it remains a wandering narrative about universally dislikeable people, clinically described and dissected and then manipulated into playing a long, slow game.

Ted Drex is a late and absurdly handsome child of trashy parents stuck in a Sixties time-warp. They live with Ted's uncle in a loveless, semi- detached London environment ,with peeling paint and the constant fume and stain of cigarettes and beer, laced by the cheap wool of Ma's vile- coloured crocheting. No culture, no radio, no will to connect or improve, or even notice the uncle's huge vintage car outside. Ted's only improving influence is the cabinet maker next door, who cares for him and introduces him to standards of beauty and taste that become his obsession.

The parents die; the drunken plumber uncle wants Ted out. There is the boot of the Edsel car, and by the time Francine, vision of slender loveliness, comes on the scene, Ted is a potentially homicidal loner who can only get worse. (The intervention of school and life outside is forgotten.) Francine, on the other hand, has a great fear of going dumb in the same way as she did when she overheard her mother's murder at the age of seven.

Everyone gets madder. Ted's total preoccupation with interior design becomes evident. He finds the perfect house in which to keep his gorgeous Francine, but this means persuading the hideous owner to vacate. His obsessive eye fails to detect the fact that there are two owners but, by now, he and reality have parted. The only suspense is whether lonely Francine will survive an attempt to jump from dreadful frying-pan into crueller fire, and how Ted will dispose of the burden in the boot.

All of this would work if there were the morality of Inspector Wexford guiding it; some superstructure taking the narrative beyond these one- dimensional, stricken lives. Which is not to suggest that Rendell needs the prop of conventional heroes: she doesn't. She has written some of the best novels of 20th-century fiction, not confined to the crime genre, and she will do so again. But this compulsive writer can occasionally produce the second-rate. Rendell/Vine is a class act, but she has a depressive understudy who gets a part infrequently enough to avoid serious damage to reputation. Inevitable, perhaps, but this is still not the evening to buy your first ticket to her play. Read The Keys to the Street or King Solomon's Carpet instead.