Elizabeth Vetch, the narrator of this largely retrospective tale of deceit and murder, has lived her entire life in fear that the obscure disease that crippled and killed her mother will do the same to her. That fear engenders in Elizabeth both desperate yearning and a sense of rueful detachment, an urge to grab what she can from her possibly abortive life and a suspicion that her grasping is for naught. Those impulses, in turn, lead to her involvement with two women who temperamentally have little in common with her, and who have little in common with each other beyond a genius for strong, unconflicted passion: Cosette, her newly widowed aunt, and Bell, a young waif whom Elizabeth meets on a London street. Those same impulses also inform Elizabeth’s edgy, observant account of how—in and around the ominously depicted House of Stairs, during the late 1960s and early 1970s—Cosette and Bell all but destroyed each other’s lives and profoundly damaged her own.
Ruth Rendell, as in other novels that she has written under the Vine pseudonym, here demonstrates that as a weaver of fiction she can do anything. She can evoke the multifaceted decadence of Swinging London and its sober, bittersweet legacy. She can fashion a plot that is labyrinthine in its complexity without appearing contrived in its exposition. She can render as equally human the blithe amoralist and the earnest benefactor, the bounder without scruple and the bounder who undergoes a change of heart. Most impressively, she can make the horrific seem normal and even, in a poetic sense, necessary.
[ADDENDUM: Rendell can also take the highest of high-brow novels and adapt its central device to her own literary ends. Quite explicitly, she borrows the triangle-based structure that undergirds the Henry James masterpiece Wings of a Dove and adapts it to this novel—a work that seems, at first glance, to be just another middlebrow thriller. To say more about that structure would risk spoiling the plot of the Vine novel (and also, by the way, the plot of Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie).]