The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 24, 2011

A Cross-Over Episode

      He got out at St. John's Wood, walked down Grove End Road, and across Alma Gardens. Orcadia Place was hidden away where you would least expect a street of houses to be, off the end of Melina Place. He stood still for a moment, for he hadn't known such places as this existed in London. It was like somewhere n the country, a corner of a country town, or a picture in a book of photographs of a country town. And it was quite quiet. Traffic could be heard only distantly and like the humming of bees. Orcadia Cottage was an invisible house, nothing of it to be seen behind the tall barrier of many varieties of leaves, feathery and pointed, shiny dark-green and tender pale-green, bronzed gold and pastel-yellow. He opened the iron gate and went in.
      Flowers everywhere, he didn't know the names. He only knew roses and of those there were plenty, pink and red and white, heavily scented. Window boxes and baskets spilled out pink and purple trumpet flowers and blue daisies and long sprays of silver leaves. They blossomed against a backcloth, a rippling layered canopy, of glossy leaves, green but touched with bronze. Most of the front of the house was covered by this foliage, like a drapery or a dense but faintly trembling screen.
      Where had he seen it before, that wall of leaves? The picture, of course, the painting that must be a picture of this very house. Orcadia Place. He must have been very preoccupied not to have caught on before. He went closer, peering, touching the layers of leaves and the red-gold tendrils that crept across and clung to the brickwork, stroking with one finger the pale-gray door, examining the glass that was like no other glass he had ever seen, but more like solidified clear green water.
      She opened the door before he could ring the bell. Another woman who been watching for him. What got into them? This one looked as she sounded on the phone, showy, shrill, too old to dress like that. Her eyes went all over him, like groping hands.

Last week, when I read the first chapter of The Vault, Ruth Rendell's new Wexford mystery, I knew right away that I was settling in with something good.  The opening describes Orcadia Cottage, a beautiful house, covered in Virginia Creeper, with a stone courtyard, in a quiet, almost rural section of London, and outlines the history of, and the real estate transactions between, the house's last four or five residents.  There's an artist who paints a famous picture of a man and woman in love, an elderly husband taunting his no-longer-young wife, a wealthy American, and finally the Rokebys, a couple with two teenagers who consider extending their living space  by adding an underground room, until Martin Rokeby idly wonders what's underneath an ornate cast-iron manhole cover set in the middle of the courtyard.

That's as far as I had read, the first six pages or so, before I read the notes on the dust jacket and saw that The Vault was 'an ingenious sequel' to A Sight for Sore Eyes, a book Ruth Rendell published in 1998.  I though I had read all the Wexfords {not that I would have remembered the plot of one from 13 years ago}, but it turns out that the earlier book is one of her stand-alone novels. I know I've read one or two or them, but I'm so caught up in series mysteries that I haven't been as drawn to the others. {Have you read them? I want to now.} Anyway, I decided that it would be fun to read the 'prequel' first, if the library had it. They did, and I did, and it was wonderful, in a creepy way.

This isn't a traditional mystery -- there are murders, and a police investigation that happens well in the background, and a resolution in part -- but more of a suspense novel about four people whose lives intersect in troubling ways.  Francine is a teenager who witnessed her mother's murder when she was a little girl, and grows up under the fierce protection of her stepmother and her guilt-ridden father.  She befriends Teddy, a beautiful young man born to parents who literally ignored him. Teddy sends himself to college, to study decorative arts and furniture making.  Francine is his sight for sore eyes, something beautiful and healing in a world filled with ugliness. When he advertises his services as a carpenter, he answers a call from Harriet, the woman in the painting and the lonely, taunted wife living in Orcadia Cottage.

Ruth Rendell's writing is so clean, and elegant, and polished, that I found myself forgetting that the characters she was writing about were traumatized, or mad, or murderous, or all of these. I was caught up in the story, and in the writing, and in wondering what would happen in each of the intersecting stories.  There was one important plot point that didn't seem believable (having to do with an Edsel), and it was a little disappointing that I guessed what was going to happen to two characters right before it did. But only just before, and it didn't lessen my enjoyment of the story or the writing.

So now I know what's under the iron lid in the courtyard.  I also know that with a writer as skillful as Ruth Rendell, this somehow won't matter. I'm further in now; Wexford has retired, and he and Dora are living in Sheila's coach house,  he's reading and walking through London,  and he's been asked by an old friend to consult on the Orcadia Place investigation {there's a twist already}.

It's interesting to read these two books together; both because it's a great premise to draw on the unrelated first book for the second, and because the writing, or maybe the mood, is different. The Wexford book is warmer, less detached, or maybe that's just the people in it. I'm sure that you would enjoy The Vault without knowing the backstory, but it's unusual (and fun) to read it knowing {or thinking we know?} things that Wexford doesn't. And A Sight for Sore Eyes is a good book to read for its own sake, before or after.


Lisa May said...

I've read and loved most of the books Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine, but I haven't read too many of her books under her own name. A Sight for Sore Eyes sounds really interesting, in a Vine-ish kind of way.

Frances said...

Thanks for the connection between the two. I do not know if I would have made it otherwise. Perfect autumn choices. Together, back to back on a chilly weekend maybe.

Kailana said...

I have never read Ruth Rendell before. This was an interesting review!

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