I have long been a fan of Ruth Rendell’s dark mysteries. She is somehow able to bring the most sinister characters to life and make me understand and care for them. When you add to that the complex stories she presents and the suspenseful pacing, you’ve got a winning package. So I turned to this audio book as though to a safe haven on a recent long trip. The book I’d selected wasn’t holding my attention and, being a bit sleepy to start with, I needed something to keep me on my toes.
I’ve heard that some people don’t consider listening to audio books to be equivalent to reading a hardback or paperback book. Me, I’m agnostic about book delivery mechanisms. I read and listen to many books and consider both to be “reading the book”. I don't believe that one method or the other is necessarily a higher quality reading experience. Perhaps the difference is that when I listen to an audio book, I really listen, and I am not afraid to rewind if temporarily distracted. It’s not just background noise.
Of course, certain books are better suited for one delivery method or the other. There have been books I couldn't stand reading but enjoyed listening to (e.g., the Harry Potter books) and vice versa (e.g., Robert B. Parker's books). Much depends on the narrator; much on the text. And certain activities are better suited to one or the other: I love listening to a book while I walk but would never just sit in a chair and listen. Obviously, I listen to books while driving, but I try to choose suitable books. They cannot be so subtle or complex that I must give them my entire attention and perhaps even reread passages several times. At the same time, they cannot be too exciting or I’ll start to drive too fast.
Rendell’s story is indeed well-suited for drive-time. Ismay shares a London flat with Heather, the younger sister whom she has spent her life protecting, ever since they were teen-agers, ever since the day Ismay and their mother returned from a shopping expedition to find Heather dripping with water and the girls’ stepfather drowned in the bathtub upstairs. The official verdict was accidental death, but although they never spoke of it, both Ismay and their mother remained convinced that Heather had killed him, Ismay believing that Heather did it to protect her (Ismay) from Guy’s attentions.
Their mother has since descended into schizophrenia and lives upstairs with her sister, the girls’ aunt. Ismay is passionately in love with Andrew, who resembles Guy, but the antagonism between Andrew and Heather may drive him away. Heather meanwhile has been asked out by Edmund, an acquaintance from work, causing Ismay to wonder if she should warn Edmund about Heather’s background. What if Heather should feel the need to protect Edmund from someone, or to protect the children who may follow? Edmund himself is trying to escape the clutches of his mother and her attempts to set him up with the sycophantic Marion, a young woman who latches onto lonely, older people. Well-off, lonely, older people.
I love the way Rendell does suspense: not a pounding beat constantly accelerating, but a tension that ratchets up and down, subtly, as the story progresses, and doubts and suspicions wax and wane. However, I found some of the characters a bit one-dimensional. Edmund’s mother for example: she’s certainly believable (and I’ve known my share of controlling, narcissistic hypochondriacs who happen to be mothers) but she seems a bit overdone to me. Her next door neighbor, Barry Phoenix, with his mustaches and Indian relicts, is a stereotypical English gent of the what-ho, pip-pip school. Although of a higher class than Edmund’s mum, Andrew, Ismay's boyfriend, exhibits the same controlling narcissism and not much else; I found his motivations hard to understand. The sisters themselves, though more complex certainly, seemed oddly flat to me, perhaps because of their solid devotion to each other, never marred by jealousy or competition or resentment, even as they make such huge demands on each other’s emotional lives.
I’m not sure I would have noticed the slight flatness of these characters if I’d been reading the book instead of listening to it. While the narrator was good, hearing the voices of the characters aloud seemed to hit those single notes even harder. The characters I found most interesting were two peripheral ones: the aunt, who despite being middle-aged, is still searching for love and willing to try even bizarre dating services to find it; and Marion’s down-and-out brother Fowler—what a great name!—who brings Marion treasures he finds in trash bins and expects her to take care of him based on childhood promises made in the Wendy-house in the garden. The book kept me fascinated (and awake) all the way home.