In Ruth Rendell’s 12th thriller under the Vine byline (The Blood Doctor, 2002, etc.), a Swedish nurse, in order to be near her lover in London, takes a post in Essex only to find that love is in dangerously short supply at Lydstep Old Hall.
Iron-willed widow Julia Cosway maintains that her son John doesn’t really need a nurse, only a minder to keep an eye on him, especially during the afternoon walks he craves. But both she and her old friend Dr. Selwyn Lombard, who’s been following the case for 30 years, are serenely confident that John is mad, presumably schizophrenic. Kerstin Kvist, arriving like a Charlotte Brontë heroine one autumn afternoon in the late 1960s to take John in hand, soon sees that his main problem is the steady diet of tranquilizers his mother is feeding him. Instead of confronting Mrs. Cosway, however, she finds herself slipping into the routine of the Cosway daughters. She accepts countless cups of tea from Ida, congratulates Winifred on her engagement to the local rector, becomes an unwilling confidante to Ella, keeps her own counsel about wealthy, widowed Zorah and watches both Ella and Winifred fall in love with newly arrived artist Felix Dunsford, who may be even more selfish than they are. The more Kerstin learns about the Cosways, in fact, the more sympathetic she is to John, who’s condemned to be regarded as a monstrous minotaur within the labyrinth of Lydstep’s locked library, and the more like minotaurs she finds the whole sick crew that surrounds him in breathtakingly hypocritical solicitude. The combustible family—“dysfunctional before the word was invented”—is the perfect setup for Vine’s trademark long-deferred violence.
Using the conventions of a Victorian pastiche, Vine presents as satisfying a family of monsters as you’re likely to find. It’s like watching a house of cards collapse in exquisite slow-motion.