A DARK-ADAPTED EYE by Barbara Vine


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In her non-detective crime novels, Ruth Rendell has usually offered close-ups of psychopaths in the making, with dreadful, ironic crisscrossings as horrible deeds come closer and closer to fruition. Here, however, under a new pseudonym, Rendell takes a somewhat different approach to a tale of obsession and mayhem: this leisurely, subdued, half-successful novel is a sly exercise in delayed exposition--with the details of a bygone crime emerging bit by bit, circuitously, with a teasing buildup that doesn't quite pay off sufficiently. The narrator is middle-aged Faith Severn, whose aunt (we soon learn) was Vera Hillyard, hanged for murder back in the late 1940's. But whom did Vera kill? And why? And what were the assorted family secrets involved in the case? The reader can only guess at first--as chunks of the story surface through Faith's childhood reminiscences, through excerpts from a book-in-progress about the case, through old letters and other documents. We learn about Faith's uneasy relationship with her snobbish, vain aunts: nervous Vera (with a much-absent husband and a nasty adolescent son) and the lovely, selfish, much younger Eden, who was virtually raised by her adoring older sister. We hear about the rumors that surfaced when Vera, near 40, gave birth to a baby during the war (ten months after her husband's last visit!). And eventually, while Eden's 1940's experiences are sketched in (party-girl action during the war, marriage into wealth thereafter), the prime focus comes to rest on Vera's slavish attachment to her small son Jamie--who ultimately becomes the object of a bitter duel between the once-devoted sisters: Eden, unable to have children herself, sets out (using her husband's wealth and power) to take adoptive possession of Jamie. . .while the increasingly frail, unhinged Vera fights back desperately, pathetically, fatally. Rendell/Vine does a masterful job of unpeeling the layers of this grim, sad tale; Faith's reminiscences (textured, one suspects, with autobiographical material) are wry, poignant, evocative. Some of the present-day subplots, on the other hand, are less effectively developed--especially the tepid tension surrounding the writing (eventually thwarted) of that new book about the case. And the one remaining mystery about the case isn't nearly as tantalizing as it's meant to be. Still: superior, sophisticated gothic entertainment from the queen of psychological suspense--who seems just as comfortable with a period piece as with the stark contemporary stories that are her forte.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
ISBN: 140845159X
Publisher: Bantam