Learning a little about my inner reader from a 1970s crime novel …..

I’ve loved my 20th Century reading Project; it’s given me a sense of purpose, and it’s led me to some wonderful, wonderful books. But there have been moments when it’s driven me mad; moments when I’ve searched for a book published in a year that seems to have nothing to offer that I have or can get, and want to read.

The 1970s have been my nightmare decade. I’ve found books for a few years, I’ve re-read a few books that I read in that decade when I first joined the adult library, but time is running out and I still don’t have every year covered. Well, they’re covered, but there are one or two books on the list that I’m not at all sure about. So if you can recommend a really good book, that was first published in 1973 or 1979 …

1974 was also a problem, but I spotted Ruth Rendell’s name on a list, alongside a title I didn’t think I’d read, and I remembered that, though I hadn’t read any of her books for years and years, I used to love them. I also remembered that I had first come to those books on my godmother’s recommendation, and that her taste was excellent.

1022791I procured a copy of the book in question – The Face of Trespass – and I found that reading it was an odd experience. The package – the themes, the style, the structure – were familiar, and I was reminded of the reader I used to be, and I understood why that reader would have loved it. But the reader I am now, the reader that lives and books have made me didn’t really like it. I could acknowledge that Ruth Rendell did what she did – and indeed what I believe she still does very well, I could still happily recommend her books to lovers of crime fiction, but they aren’t what I want to read any more.

The story – like many of Ruth Rendell’s stand-alone novels – focuses on the life of one lonely and isolated soul. Gray had written a highly successful first novel, but a bad case of writers block and a failed romance had brought him low. He was living alone, in a small cottage on the edge of Epping Forest, house-sitting for a friend who was away travelling. He had become a hermit, and his standards were slipping.

He wasn’t the most obviously sympathetic character, and he was horribly self-centred, but he was presented with such clear-sightedness, such empathy, that I couldn’t look away. Of course it way have helped that I knew this was a crime novel, that something must be going to happen. Or it might have happened already.

Gray was under pressure, and the pressure was growing: his royalty cheques were shrinking, his money was running out, his step-father wanted him to come to France to visit his dying mother, and he knew that the day he would have to move out of the cottage was approaching fast. He knew that he had to do something; and he did the right thing, but then things went horribly wrong.

The plot was so very cleverly constructed. Details that had seemed insignificant became key; new details emerged; I saw some of the pieces fall into place as I had expected, but others took me by surprise. I can’t fault the clever, clever writing.

The end was very well done, and a well-judged afterword opened out what had first seemed a closed conclusion.

This is a good crime novel; it just dipped in a few places, and I didn’t like the use of a dog in the story. I can’t say it was wrong, indeed it was very effective, but it made me uncomfortable.

But that wasn’t why I didn’t care for The Face of Trespass. I didn’t like it because I want characters to care about, or to admire, I want characters and relationships to develop with the story. But there was none of that here, there were only static characters to serve the plot. And that’s not enough for me any more.

On a more positive note though, this book has taught me something. I’m not going to put myself in situations where I have to read books again. This will be my first and last century of books.

I have another plan for next year, a new way to celebrate the books and authors of the 20th century. Watch this space … !

5 responses

  1. Jane, I’ve found that I like the Barbara Vine books so much but I don’t enjoy the Ruth Rendell books. I haven’t quite been able to articulate why I don’t enjoy them, but I’ve given up trying to convince myself I will or should like the Rendells just because I like the Vines.

  2. *Definitely* recommend the Calvino Jane – I do hope you like it.

    I used to read Ruth Rendell and I think I’d be with you on your assessment – a lot of crime novels don’t develop their characters, and I too have grown out of that type of writing. Give me Sayers any day!

    And I really do agree with you about the *having* to read books – I’m moving away from that myself, and though I’ve considered the Century of Books challenge I’ve come to realise that challenges don’t work for me – back to free reading!

  3. I’m useless at challenges too, although I am ticking off the years on a century of books just to encourage the odd whim to read something older now and then, as my tendency is too much towards the shiny and new! I’ve never actually read any Ruth Rendell either – Wexford never appealed, and I was into SF&F in the 70s and early 80s and read little else for ages.

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