CORRIDOR of MYSTERY
VOL. 3, No. 20
RUTH RENDELL'S Adam and Eve and
Rendell's latest mystery
awash in suspects
By RON MILLER
Ruth Rendell's versatility remains unchallenged in the mystery world, especially after you read her latest novel "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" (Crown, $25), which is a sort of comedy of terrors involving a whole roster of "suspects" whose lives all are touched by the same lowdown, rotten, two-timing swindler.
I love the fact that Rendell can knock out an Inspector Wexford police detective novel--there are 19 so far--then put on her other identity as Barbara Vine and concoct a deeply disturbing psychological thriller--she's up to 10 of those already--but still find time to write such fresh and original "stand alone" mysteries like "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me," the 21st Rendell book that falls into that "open" category.
What's more, these are all first-rate novels with many of them, like "Adam, etc.," loaded with savvy social criticism from Rendell's special insight into contemporary English life.
Ruth Rendell in a dark
and stormy mood.
The pivotal figure of the new mystery is a young, good-looking and charming fellow whose name is either Jock Lewis, Jerry Leach, Jeff Leigh--or, presumably, whatever handle he happens to be going by when he slips into bed with his latest squeeze. He has a special talent for finding single women who seem to need a man they don't mind paying the bills for in return for his earnest lovemaking and other attractions.
As far as we can tell, Jock-Jerry-Jeff has never worked a day in his life, assuming, of course, that you're not so jaded with sex that you think keeping a needful woman happy in bed constitutes some form of hard labor.
One of his ladies is Zillah, a strikingly handsome young woman of the middle class, who bears him a couple of children before he disappears one day. She gets a letter notifying her that "Jerry" was among those killed in a horrifying train wreck in the English countryside, but Zillah is smart enough to figure the letter isn't authentic, but really amounts to Jerry's subtle way of telling her he won't be back to thrill her again.
Not so clever is Minty, the lonely, lowclass orphan girl who never had sex with anyone before "Jock" came into her life. He had become everything to her, which is why she emptied out her bank account to keep him happy, gave him all the money her aunt had left her so he might help his ailing mum and was about to sign over the deed to her house to him before she, too, received a letter informing her of Jock's death in that train crash.
Well, Minty believes it wholeheartedly. Worse yet, she starts to see Jock's "ghost" on a regular basis--one of many delusional "ghosts" who haunt her life, among them her late aunt and Jock's mother. Minty is a cleanliness fetishist who bathes several times daily, spends all her free time cleaning the house and, most naturally, works in a laundry, ironing men's shirts. She takes to carrying a butcher knife around with her to defend herself against the ghost of Jock, even though she's paranoid about the mess that would result if she ever actually stabbed the ghost and got "ghost juice" all over her.
In his obvious effort to satisfy the needs of English women from all social levels, our sexual Johnny Appleseed also has gone on to woo the lovely Fiona, a wealthy female banker, who knows him as "Jeff." She shows so much promise that she actually is moving Jeff quickly toward a wedding ceremony, which might be a little dicey for "Jeff" since he never actually divorced Zillah.
You might expect a man like Jock-Jerry-Jeff to get his comeuppance sooner or later, which more or less happens halfway through the book. But it's the fallout from his prior adventures that really complicates things and creates the atmosphere of a mystery that begins to stifle any number of lives.
For example, Zillah has compensated for losing "Jerry" by accepting the marriage proposal of a fast-rising Member of Parliament that she's known since childhood. He needs a wife because he's gay and is about to be "outed" by the press, which surely would take some of the steam out of his political engine.
Of course, it doesn't help that one of our hero's earlier sweethearts is now one of the great journalistic muckrakers of Fleet Street. As she starts covering the glamorous marriage of Zillah and her political guy, the reporter starts putting the pieces together and wonders why there doesn't seem to be any record of Zillah's divorce from "Jerry."
Meanwhile, Rendell also nudges another pair of diverting characters into the yarn: Fiona's neighbors--an enormously obese woman and her rail-thin anorexic husband, who's becoming something of a TV star with his program about eating disorders. They don't like "Jeff" at all and keep telling Fiona what a jerk he is, so they soon find themselves in deep trouble when the police start looking into what may have happened to "Jeff."
As all the strands of this story whirl about in the winds blown up by the British tabloids, precious Minty continues to wage her one-woman war against "ghosts" and we get a marvelous cocked-angle portrait of modern British life from that shrewdly diabolical observer, Ruth Rendell.
This is a rousing read and as good a place as any for a new reader to make his or her acquaintance with Ms. Rendell. The woman continues to be full of surprises and "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" certainly won't be like anything else you've read lately.
© 2002 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The book cover reproduction is © 2002 by Crown Publishing.
Ron Miller is the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently teaches "The Curious History of Mystery" at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington.
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