LIVE FLESH by Ruth Rendell

LIVE FLESH

KIRKUS REVIEW

When Rendell goes all out for psychopathology rather than conventional suspense, the results can sometimes truly be riveting--as in the case of A Judgement in Stone. Often, however, as in this new novel about a severely disturbed ex-convict, Rendell's clinical studies can become more pathetic and oppressive than compelling, especially if the story (like this one) lacks a strongly appealing supporting cast. Victor Jenner, 38, has just emerged from prison after over ten years: he was convicted of shooting policeman David Fleetwood during a panicky siege/shoot-out following Victor's flight from the scene of a brutal rape. (He was never tried for any of his several rape-crimes.) So now Victor must try to build a new life for himself--with little money, no job, no friends, no family (except an old, rich, hostile aunt), and no psychiatric treatment. He has good intentions, a little surface charm, a fair amount of willpower (enough to fight off flickers of rape-urge), but limitless powers of self-delusion--especially when it comes to his Oedipal psychohistory (which is laid on thick but not with full persuasiveness). With no real personal connections, then, Victor soon develops an obsession with the most important man in his life: David, the young policeman he shot (by accident, Victor swears), who has been confined to a wheelchair, and sexually impotent, ever since. Victor seeks him out; half-believably, a strange friendship grows between the two men--since Victor's presence helps David come to realer terms with his disability, while Victor passes from self-deception through naked guilt (a new sensation for him) to a sort of repentance. But, as every reader will sense from the start, this tale of rehabilitation and repentance is leading to dreadful things: Victor, still very crazy, becomes determined to possess David's girlfriend Clare (who does sleep with him once). And when she rebuffs him repeatedly, rekindling all his Oedipal manias, Victor goes on a rampage of rape and murder. . .before his grimly ironic downfall. By general standards, even second-string Rendell is fine work, of course: leanly stylish, starkly detailed, often darkly amusing. And a few touches here--like Victor's use of a wheelchair (just like David's) in his flight from justice--are Rendell at her brilliant best. But, even as a case-history, this is only half-successful: Victor has a Hitchcockian phobia involving tortoises, for example, that's sheer contrivance. And, with no one else to care about (David and Clare are just sketches), the reader is stuck with Victor for the duration: claustrophobic, ultimately dispiriting company, despite Rendell's often-effective attempts to humanize a psycho-criminal profile.
Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 1986
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1986




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