Ruth Rendell’s 13th pseudonymous novel traces the four years of unintended consequences following a Conservative MP’s ill-advised attempt to spice up his sex life.
If they hadn’t been sexually adventurous, precocious, well-regarded statesman Ivor Tesham and glamorous housewife Hebe Furnal never would have gotten together so quickly and combustibly. But Ivor’s birthday present to Hebe, in addition to the pearl necklace prudently indistinguishable from paste that he’s already given her, raises the stakes several levels from dressing up and role-playing. Warning her only that she’ll get a nice surprise if she’s on a certain street at a certain time, he hires two men to kidnap her and deliver her, bound and gagged, to his bed—or rather to the bed of his sister Iris and her husband Rob Delgado, who’ve obligingly lent him their house without knowing what he has in mind. When this naughty but innocuous plan goes disastrously wrong, two people are killed; a millionaire’s wife suffers a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown; Hebe’s best friend, librarian Jane Atherton, is saddled with guilty knowledge without knowing what to do with it; and Ivor is left bobbing on a bubble of rising success that’s threatened by any number of objects with the lethal potential of unexploded bombs (Jane’s diary, Hebe’s box of sex toys, that string of pearls) and variously complicit parties—his fiancée Juliet Case, Hebe’s benighted husband Gerry, IRA terrorist Sean Lynch and, finally, Jane, whose agonized inner conflicts and deepening madness show once more Rendell’s unrivaled insight into the unacknowledged dark places of the psyche. The string of calamities that inevitably ensue is expertly braided with the political fortunes of the Conservatives and afterwards in a masterly rebuke to critics who think suspense novels are too insulated from social reality.
Less dense and gloomy than most of Vine’s work (The Minotaur, 2006, etc.), though that’s a matter of degree. Despite an untidy and anticlimactic ending, as gripping a tale as you’ll read this year.