In an afterword to this novel, the second title to feature the Vine alias, Ruth Rendell describes the literary goal that underlay her decision to adopt that alter ego: “It would be a softer voice speaking at a slower pace, more sensitive perhaps, and more intuitive.” Seeing that line after stumbling off this tumultuous ride of a book, the weary traveler to Vine-land must assume either that Rendell is kidding or that she’s a supremely obtuse reader of her own work. It’s hard to imagine a set of phrases (“softer voice,” “slower pace”) that would be less applicable to the work at hand—a work whose narrative voice is detached and unforgiving but never soft, a work whose pace affords the reader no breathing space between one scene of cruelty, or betrayal, or self-deception, or callousness, and the next.
A Fatal Inversion is a wickedly fine crime novel that inverts key features of the classic crime genre—a genre in which Rendell, writing under her own name, has proven to be a past master. Although there is plenty of mystery, and a plot as exquisitely complex as one could wish for, Rendell in her guise as Vine makes no attempt to play fair with her readers or to provide more than a light dusting of detection. (She even allows a loose thread to hang obtrusively at the close of her tale: Childbirth, parenthood, and parental identity are themes that drive much of the plot, yet Vine never explains what ultimately happened to a certain infant.) What’s more, although the police do investigate the events in question, they remain forever ignorant of the true contour of those events. But the most “fatal inversion” that Vine achieves occurs on a moral plane. In her darkly ironic fictional world, those who are least culpable of evil-doing feel most responsible for it. The guilty parties largely elude punishment, while others face retribution of a cosmic (if not civil) kind.
[ADDENDUM: A Fatal Inversion is one of the most compelling novels that I’ve read in any genre. Trenchant social and psychological observation combines with stomach-churning suspense to produce a tale that reminded me a lot of A Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each of those books, a group of young men and women come together to pursue a certain dream of freedom, and that pursuit takes a wrong turn, with consequences that haunt them ever after.
The mini-review that appears above, by the way, is one that I wrote back when I felt no need to waste words on describing a book’s plot or its characters. So, for the record, here’s the Wikipedia plot summary for this novel: “In the hot summer of 1976, a group of young people are camping in Wyvis Hall. Ten years later, the bodies of a woman and child are discovered in the Hall’s animal cemetery. Which woman? Whose child?”]