Monday, July 09, 2007

An Unkindness of Ravens

I finished Ruth Rendell's thirteenth mystery today, and found it to be a bit ... silly. I generally love the Inspector Wexford books but was a bit let down by this one. It was so over-the-top in some parts, and utterly simplistic in others, that I sometimes felt I was re-reading one of the lurid pulpy horror paperbacks that so interested me as a young teenager, it was that juicy and salacious. At times I couldn't take it seriously at all and wondered if she was just having fun. Like, "Oh fuck it, let's just throw a secret marriage in there."

Which, in itself, can be kind of fun.

Of course, Rendell knows how to keep the pages turning, but it felt like she really struggled with this one. There were even self-conscious admissions that the story was flagging ("Chandler says when you don't know what to do, have a man walk into the room with a gun") and she'd throw in new elements here and there until it finally felt like she was just heaping soapy absurdities on in an effort to distract the reader from the lack of story.

The most inane elements included Burden's wife moping over the fact that their unborn baby was a girl, a group of militant teenage feminists (man-killers, all!) and a little incest subplot that of course turned out to be a lie (because everyone lies about being raped!) and strange asides about feminism and femininity ( two wives each representing opposite poles of the monster that is Woman, from the simpering twit to the sexless hag) until a reader gets to wondering what Rendell's trying to say about feminism here. She must be making fun of anti-feminism. Radical feminists who stab unwary men? Funny joke, yes? She even threw a lesbian gym teacher in there! She has to be taking the piss. Dry British humor, yes?

Luckily Rendell's a smart technician, so I could ignore the distressing subtext and let the story play out in all its campy goodness. Plotwise, you've got what seems to be an ordinary wandering-husband job, that later turns out to be an elaborate set-up and murder. Add to the mix a fun secret wife and kid (ooh, bigamy!), and two sets of plotting, scheming women (the sets of mothers and daughters) and you've got plenty of motives for revenge.

Only Wexford comes off as a bit of a dullard in this one, and spends way too much time looking for a suspicious typewriter (to find out who typed the victim's resignation letter) and on other false, niggling leads, when anyone could see it was the mothers and daughters who did it.

This was by far the most transparent Wexford mystery I've yet read; very, very thin and rather disappointing over all. And bizarre. Just want to add that yet again. Thoroughly bizarre. I'll never understand what Rendell thought she was doing with that feminist group, other than finding a cool thing to do with the collective noun for ravens.

So what makes a gal keep on reading a bad book? Knowing it's going to turn out badly, maybe she waits in vain to see if it'll get better. (More likely Rendell is just good at turning the screws when needed.) Or, maybe one can thoroughly enjoy a rotten book, because criticizing is fun and it's definitely exciting to see what new stupidity the author will think of next (plus it's always fun to speculate if she's joking or not). It's definitely not a well-written novel, stuffed with absurd cliches and literary pretension (Wexford attends a play about incest, The Cenci, just before discovering incest figures in his own mystery; numerous allusions to detective stories, plot devices and criticism pepper the text, leading one to presume that Rendell spent wads of time staring at her bookcase while writing this, hoping to paste something together; Wexford quotes constantly, irritatingly) and the final explanation is both psychologically pat and vaguely insulting (fake rape accusations are always a deal-breaker for me, as I view them as not only the most irritating of plot devices but they also make me extremely uncomfortable and generally icky-all-over) AND, finally, there was just a little too much coincidence for my taste (the second wife just happens to be dating the typewriter-repair man?).

Much of the pleasure in mystery-reading comes from characterization as much as plot, and the creepy half-sisters were pretty compelling, as were the monstrous wives, though I'd liked to have known more about them, particularly the perpetrator. Maybe, once she realized it wasn't very good, Rendell piled on the scandalous elements, knowing full well it was silly, but still striving to keep the reader mildly entertained. The only really satisfying twist came at the end of the story, because the motive for the murder was a little different than the obvious (revenge). It was actually quite pragmatic, and a rather sad commentary on the state of women's education and financial dependence on men -- so maybe she did make her point after all.

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