Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Fright Night 3--Death Card: The Lake of Darkness (1980), by Ruth Rendell

Week three of Friday Fright Night.  How fright flies!  You have the heebie-jeebies yet?  We'll see about that.  Here are your creepy links:

Cross Examining Crime

A Reading Life

Sweet Freedom

Pretty Sinister (last week)

Pretty Sinister (this week)

And here is my contribution this week. Read on, ye stout of heart!

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.... 

--King Lear (William Shakespeare)          

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending others' possessions.  Scorpios are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers.  The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card on the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius.  He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

Emotions, passion, jealousy, desire, even hatred, were beyond or outside his understanding.  They bored him.  He preferred magic.

--The Lake of Darkness (Ruth Rendell)


Under the zodiac I, like Ruth Rendell's Finn and the Roman emperor Tiberius, am a Scorpio, meaning my birthday falls at this time of year.  I could never quite figure out how I was meant to be a Scorpio, because my personality does not seem to accord at all with this passionate and rather fearsome celestial sign.  But that would mean astrology is hooey, and that surely can't be right, can it?  It is written in our stars, is it not?

Astrology and the role of fickle fate in our lives are major elements in Ruth Rendell's non-series crime novels, of which The Lake of Darkness (1980) was the ninth to be published.  It appeared at a time when Rendell was growing restive with her Inspector Wexford series of novels, of which ten had appeared up to this time.  After 1980, up to the year of her death in 2015, Rendell would publish fourteen more Wexfords, but nineteen Wexfordless Rendells and fourteen novels written under another pseudonym, Barbara Vine.  Over time it seems that Wexford became for Rendell more of an obligation than an enthusiasm.  

The Lake of Darkness receives much less attention than another non-series Rendell from around this time, the unpleasant tour de force A Judgment in Stone (1977), but in a crucial way, in my opinion, The Lake of Darkness was more pivotal to her development.  While Judgment is more of a social problem novel dealing, quite murderously to be sure, with the problem of illiteracy, Lake plunges us into more familiar topics in crime fiction: deep-dyed deception and madness.  What seems original about Lake to me is how Rendell brings this seemingly unconnected group of characters together with quite deadly results, like a criminous version of Thornton Wilder's 1927 bestselling mainstream novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  

This was a pattern which Rendell would use over and over in her non-series Rendell crime fiction, right up to her final, posthumous novel, Dark Corners (2015). but rarely did she do it better than in the compulsively readable and lean and tightly plotted Lake of Darkness, a novel of around 75,000 words (about half the length of some of her later ones).  Sometimes less is more!

The main characters in Lake, which like so many of Rendell's books is set in London, are psychopathic hit man Finn (see quotation above); twenty-eight-year-old Martin Urban, an accountant of the social genus people soon would be calling "yuppie"; Tim Sage, an stunningly attractive old college chum of Martin's (Rendell unaccountably loved that name, Martin), who works as a freelance journalist; and a lovely young woman half-prosaically named Francesca Brown.

The already well-off Martin has won 105,100 pounds in a football lottery (over a half million pounds today) and being, in contrast with the yuppie stereotype, an altogether modest and conscientious-to-a-fault fellow, he decides to give much of the money away to deserving, needful people.  This, of course, is where he gets himself into deep trouble.  

Martin is one of Rendell's early examples of the dangerously ingenuous protagonist, someone who wants to help others but is impeded by his own naivete and ingrained conservatism.  He is also, I think, the first really notable gay male in Rendell's non-series crime fiction--although Martin being the dunderhead that he is, he takes an unaccountably long time in the novel, at age twenty-eight, to realize that he might be gay.  It may be be harder for people today to buy this, but personally I, who was half Martin's age when this novel was published, can believe there were people like this in 1980.  Indeed, I think we still have them today, four decades later.  

Unlike much of Rendell's later crime fiction, Lake keeps plot firmly at the forefront and can be safely recommended, I think, to people who prefer plot-driven mysteries.  In terms of structure, the story looks back to the prestidigitation of, say, the landmark 1955 French suspense film Diabolique (based on the 1952 novel She Who Was No More), rather than forward to the meandering, portentous formlessness of much modern-day character-driven crime fiction.  The characterization in the novel is sufficient to carry the story along, in my view, although you may have trouble sympathizing with Martin because of his, well, utter cluelessness about life.  He seems a born victim.  But then look at the maddeningly dense protagonist in Francis Iles' landmark suspense novel Before the Fact (1931).

The message of Lake seems to be that acts of kindness can ironically redound on one with devastating results.  I often wonder about Rendell's politics.  She used to tell people over and over again that she was a hardcore leftist and she aligned with the Labour party in Parliament, but I always get the sense with Rendell that there was a conservative within her struggling to get out and hector people.  Later in life she repetitively denounced what she termed "political correctness" in her fiction and she he often seems to have viewed members of the white working class with outright disdain.  Black and Muslim women she adored (I'm not so sure about the men), but that seems more a matter of race and gender than class per se.  

Certainly in Lake Martin and his parents, for all their knowledge about moneymaking, seem, on account of their lucre, insulated from and oblivious to unpleasant realities.  However, one of the most irksome characters in the book is Martin's cleaner, Mr. Cochrane, who presumptuously calls Martin by his first name but flies into a fury when asked for his own, and is, in the author's words, "a ferocious racist."  Rendell's writing is at her most dryly ironic as she details how poor Martin got stuck with Mr. Cochrane:

That his cleaner was a mister and not a missus was due to the Sex Discrimination Act.  When Martin put his advertisement in the North London Post he had been obliged by law not to state that he required female help, and when Mr. Cochrane turned up similarly obliged not to reject him.  He was lucky enough to get anyone at all, as his mother pointed out.  

[Upon Mr. Conchrane's arrival Martin] wished that he was about to admit a large motherly charwoman, an old-fashioned, biddable creature, who, if she didn't exactly call him sir, might nevertheless treat him with respect and show some consideration for his wishes.  He had read about such people in books.

Another way in which this novel looks back to the past is in its seeming nostalgia for an earlier era, when good help--or any help at all--was not so hard to find.  Even, as lovers of a certain classic Agatha Christie Miss Marple detective novel from three decades earlier will appreciate, a ditzy, caricatured au pair refugee from Middle Europe named Mitzi.


  1. the meandering, portentous formlessness of much modern-day character-driven crime fiction.

    Beautifully and so aptly put! You put the right words on why so much modern MINOs (Mysteries In Name Only) leave me cold. Rendell is often seen as the progenitor of that brand of crime fiction but unlike her so-called followers she crafted plots rather than merely telling stories.

    Re her politics I have the same feelings than you do, and I would add her religious beliefs were not that clear cut either. (One of her final interviews had her referring to the loss of her faith as something recent, meaning that it may have been there at some point in the past, which her books hardly reflect) All in all she was a complex character, much more so than her BFF P.D. James and hence in my view making her a more interesting writer.

    1. Yes, I think I like her better than James, she seems more varied. Though she later pooh-poohed plotting, she could be very good at it. I think like other writers who kept at for do long (half a century), she was running out of original ideas in her later years, though she never had a collapse like Christie or Carr. I enjoyed her last Wexford, for example, which was published two years before she died.

    2. Xavier, I find the abbreviation MINO very apt. Suddenly I have a perfect term to explain why many modern mystery novels do not appeal to me.

  2. Thanks for the review. :) I haven't had good experience with Ruth Rendell, perhaps because I've ventured into her later entries. What would you say are her best puzzle mysteries - would they be the early Wexford titles?

    1. Oh, yes, definitely. I think among her non-Wexford crime novels about the only ones for you might be To Fear a Painted Devil or The Secret House of Death. Most of the earlier Wexfords are quite could detective novels.

    2. Thanks for the recommendations; are there particular titles among the early Wexford novels you think are great?

    3. Try any Wexford she wrote in the Sixties or Seventies.

    4. For me, the standout Rendells are:

      Wexford: Wolf to the Slaughter is masterly - Christiean sleight-of-hand coupled with moving characterisation. A Sleeping Life, Put On by Cunning, and An Unkindness of Ravens are all clever (although some people hate Ravens). Maybe Speaker of Mandarin, too? Kissing the Gunner's Daughter is perhaps the last Wexford where she was still enthusiastic; with a large cast and a plot spanning generations, it looks ahead to the best of Reginald Hill and Minette Walters. Superb.

      The Lake of Darkness is excellent, as Curt says; I also remember liking The Face of Trespass quite a bit. And of course A Judgement in Stone! But the non-series novel I'd most recommend is The Crocodile Bird, which could almost be one of the Barbara Vines. It's about the relationship between a mother and daughter, and is one of Rendell's most sympathetic, surprisingly optimistic novels.

      The short stories are generally brilliant. You might try Wexford in shorter form, in Means of Evil. One story is even a tribute to Agatha Christie!

    5. Thanks for all the recommendations! :)

  3. I still find most of the later Wexfords enjoyable reading, although you may argue that RR was becoming over-concerned with bringing in "social issues" (domestic violence, female genital mutilation, paedophiles and the tabloid press...). I still prefer the Barbara Vine titles, particularly "A Dark-Adapted Eye" and "Asta's Book" (which is the nearest the BV books come to an actual detective story).

    1. Love Asta's Book! I enjoyed many of later Wexfords despite the length and preoccupation with social ills. she obviously needed something more than mechanical plot exercise to keep them interesting for her.

  4. I was an early adapter with RR, started reading her in the mid-70s (though she'd been writing for 10 years then) and to put it simplistically, I liked her books less and less as time wore on. I always preferred the Wexford books, but remember this one very clearly, I found it very dark, and can remember even now certain scenes in it. She was certainly talented - and I love the fact that she wrote a lot! You wouldn't run out in a hurry. As you say, here views on various topics were fairly mystifying.

    1. Yes, lol, I'm working on a theory, stay tuned! I still have lots by her left to read, happily.