Tuesday, 27 July 1999
Ruth Rendell: Vanity Dies Hard (1965)
Edition: Arrow, 1984
Review number: 298
In general, Ruth Rendell's Wexford novels are better than the others; Vanity Dies Hard is an exception to this. It is perhaps rather over-extended, a problem that frequently seems to afflict Rendell; it is too much a one idea piece of work to be a top class novel. However, it is gripping, and the idea is very interesting, an unusual variation on the 'woman's fears that something strange is going on are dismissed as hysterical' theme.
Alice Whittaker is rich and beautiful, recently married to a younger man, but still terribly insecure. Her close friend Nesta Drage has recently moved away, but the letters received from her are strange - and type written (a skill Nesta does not possess). Sensing something wrong, Alice goes in search of Nesta, only to discover that her letters have been going to a non-existent address. This makes the fact that she received replies to them seem really strange, and prompts further investigation. When Alice begins to be sick after every meal, she becomes convinced that Nesta was poisoned, and that her murderer is now poisoning Alice's own food.
Since all this is familiar territory for the thriller genre - it is the ending which is unusual about this story - it could be sketched in far more quickly with at least equal effectiveness. Rendell introduces episode after episode to increase our belief that Alice is indeed hysterical, but that on the other hand something is going on. The writing is skilful enough that negative reactions only occur on reflection by the reader. While actually reading the novel, you are drawn in. The fact that the book is over-extended, and the subsidiary faults which make this the case (Alice is a little too hysterical to be believable, the sequence of events which convince her that someone is trying to kill her a little too fantastic) are only obvious later.