There is a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it's my mind....
In my mind there's no sorrow
Don't you know that it's so?
There'll be no sad tomorrow
Don't you know that it's so?
--There's a Place (1963), The Beatles
He didn't want to remember any of this, he wanted to escape out of it to a blank screen.
--A Fatal Inversion (1987), Barbara Vine
In the third edition of his mystery genre study Bloody Murder crime writer and critic Julian Symons had the highest of praise for Barbara Vine (aka the late Ruth Rendell), or at least her first three novels, that stunning succession of A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), A Fatal Inversion (1987) and The House of Stairs (1988). The fourth Vine, Gallowglass (1991), Symons pronounced an example of a writer "very much off form," and he had nothing at all to say about King Solomon's Carpet (1991), the fifth Vine, which would have appeared, presumably, when he was writing Bloody Murder, though, like A Fatal Inversion, it won the Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year.
Afterward followed vine's Asta's Book (1993), No Night Is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995), the first and last of which I think measure up to her first magnificent three. I'd have to say that those five Vine titles are about as good as anything ever produced in the crime and mystery genre that I have read.
Julian Symons judged A Fatal Inversion the best of the Barbara Vines, and he may well be right. I may still prefer the Victorian density of Asta's Book, but Inversion is unquestionably terrific. The novel details events which follow the discovery of the skeletal remains of a young woman and infant child interred in a pet cemetary in the wooded grounds of Wyvis Hall, a Georgian country mansion in Suffolk. This setting is classical and the opening sentence is a nod to the Golden Age detective novel:
"The body lay on a small square of carpet in the middle of the gun-room floor. Alec Chipstead looked round for something to put over it. He unhooked a raincoat from one of the pegs and, covering the body, reflected too late late that he would never wear that again."
Even the surname Chipstead recalls thriller writer Sydney Horler's gentleman hero "Bunny" Chipstead. Would Rendell have been familiar with this forgotten crime fiction series (Sapper sapped, as it were), which produced four books between 1927 and 1940? Probably it's just a coincidence.
Anyway, with these opening lines Inversion opens like an vintage Alfred Hitchcock movie, but actually the body referenced in them is not a human corpse but rather the body of a euthanized pet, while Chipstead and his wife are the current dutiful, innocent owners of Wyvis Hall. When they discover human remains in 1986 while burying their dog in the old pet cemetery, they promptly ring up the police--and the hunt is on to identify the remains and to discover just how they came to rest there.
However, Inversion is not a police procedural and legal authority appears in the novel only briefly, in snatches. The story is told primarily though three characters, Adam, Rufus and Shiva, who were present at Wyvis Hall a decade earlier, when the bodies came to end up in the pet cemetery. They know what happened, but it never becomes quite clear to the reader until close to the end of the novel.
The narrative shifts from the present day in 1986 back a decade to 1976 when Adam, a nineteen-year-old college student, unexpectedly inherited Wyvis Hall. He, his rather swaggering medical student friend Rufus, and Shiva, a desperately assimilationist Indian, along with two young women, a strange, eccentric character named Zosie and a devotee of Eastern spiritualism named Vivien, end up spending the summer of '76, one of the hottest on British record, residing in a sort of commune at Wyvis Hall, which Adam whimsically has renamed Ecalpemos ("SOMEPLACE" spelled backwards). There they sell off the silver and other contents of the mansion to support themselves in the fine art of lotus eating.
After the experiment at Ecalpemos abruptly ended, the commune members made a pact never to contact each other again, but the discovery of the human remains has caused Adam, in particular, to rethink this course of action. A computer designer now married with a young daughter, Adam likens his experience a decade ago at Ecalpemos to a computer file, shut away. He doesn't want to recall any of it. Neither do Rufus, now a gynecologist and secret drinker, and Shiva. But unhappy memories can't remain locked away, safely quarantined, in the face of an active police investigation--a murder investigation....
A novel of some 120,000 words, by my count, Inversion is so skillfully put together that it could be taught in writing courses purely for plot construction. But it's also a beautifully designed novel, a meditation on crime and guilt and retributive justice, with memorable renditions of character and setting and an omnipresent sense of tragic irony, which surges like a tsunami in the final pages.
Critics like Symons adored this novel, quite rightly, and as mentioned it won the Gold Dagger from the UK's Crime Writers Association for best crime novel of the year. (Remarkably, Rendell won a total of four Gold Daggers and a Silver Dagger for individual crime novels, along with three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, two of them for short stories and the third for A Dark-Adapted Eye, the first Barbara Vine.) It's a novel I could write much more about, but I would hate to spoilt it for those who have not read it, it's that artfully constructed.
Adverse criticism of this novel baffles me, but some people have complained that the characters are "unlikeable." This complaint always amuses me when it's lodged against a crime novel. Had the characters been likable, jolly people, none of the events in the book would have happened and we the readers would be the losers thereby. Vine is actually extremely effective at catching the atmosphere of youth's all too brief summer, when life seems joyously free and clear and full of possibility, rather than circumscribed by a thousand demands, duties and impositions.
Others have complained that the novel is too slow-moving, but that is the Vine way. Her books are often compared to Victorian sensation novels, and that is a valid comparison, but they also remind me of American author Mary Roberts Rinehart's sprawling crime novels from the Twenties into the Fifties. Vine, I believe, is a superior crime writer to Rinehart, but there is a similarity in technique. Rinehart is known for her teasing "Had I But Known" style of mystery writing, where the retrospective narrator offers tantalizing hints of what happened, and Vine does the same sort of thing. It's not Had I But Known, however, but rather, Had I Done This, or Not Done This....
Vine keeps up interest with these teasing suggestions in the first half of the novel and by the second half, when events finally start getting revealed in a gathering, gloomy tide, you will not want to put down the novel, until you know all. At least I sure didn't! There's one surprise and then another in the final pages, this last a stunner that Julian Symons called "the most brilliantly ironic ending of any crime story known to me." I have my differences with old Jules, as we know, but I am in full agreement with him here. I saw it just a couple of pages ahead of time and was like, oh, shit, really?!
It's a shame that Ruth Rendell used to speak so slightingly of Agatha Christie, for both authors were brilliant plotters and Christie herself had a wicked sense of irony and the macabre.
In early Christie stories like "Accident," "Philomel Cottage" and "Witness for the Prosecution," brilliant little shards of malevolence, and her late shocking, grim novel Endless Night, you will more than a glimmer of Ruth Rendell. If you see Mary Roberts Rinehart in Barbara Vine, there is Christie in Rendell.
A Fatal Inversion was adapted as a three part British television series in 1992 with dishy Jeremy Northam, then on the cusp of movie stardom, Douglas Hodge and Saira Todd, but it's crying out for a feature film version (see pic above right). It's rather like crime fiction's Brideshead Revisited.
My review of Asta's Book (eleven years ago!) is here.