A Sight for Sore Eyes came out in 1999. It is a novel of psychological suspense, not a police procedural – Reg Wexford does not appear in the narrative. Sight features one of the most genuinely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. In the more than ten years since I read it, I have not forgotten his name: Teddy Brex.
The Vault opens with Franklin Merton commenting that although he could afford to buy a particular house, he could not afford to purchase a painting of it. The painting he’s referring to is entitled Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place. The painter was Simon Alpheton, an artist of considerable note at the time, that time being 1973.
A Sight for Sore Eyes opens with Simon Alpheton in the act of painting Marc Syre, star of the rock band Come Hither, and his girlfriend Harriet Oxenholme as they stand before a house – their house, Orcadia Cottage.
The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind.
I often feel that Ruth Rendell is not given sufficient credit for the vivid beauty of her writing. One is particularly likely to encounter prose of this caliber when she is describing dwelling places. Orcadia Cottage is of central importance in A Sight for Sore Eyes, just as it is in The Vault.
While Marc and Harriet are posing for him, Simon tells them about a painting by Rembrandt called The Jewish Bride:
‘It’s a very tender painting, it expresses the protective love of the man for his young submissive bride. They’re obviously wealthy, they’re very richly dressed, but you can see that they’re sensitive, thoughtful people and they’re in love.’
The graceful image, not to mention the subtle implication conjured by these words is well nigh lost on the rock musician and his preening girlfriend. Her response to Simon’s words is to crow: “Like us. Rich and in love.”
No, not much like them at all, actually….
The action of The Vault takes place in the present, almost forty years after Simon Alpheton created his iconic image. Marc Syre is dead. Franklin Merton has recently passed away. No one knows what’s become of Harriet Oxenholme. Meanwhile, a terrible secret concealed in the bowels of Orcadia cottage has just come to light.
At the time of these events, Reg Wexford, newly retired, is living with his wife Dora in London, in accommodation provided by their loving (and happily very well to do) daughter Sheila. Wexford is just starting to adjust to his new life when Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met asks for his help. A gruesome discovery has been made in a house in Orcadia Place. Could Wexford assist with the investigation, as a civilian consultant? Wexford could. And does, although working for law enforcement in this singular capacity makes him somewhat uneasy. In conversation with Dora, he can’t help likening himself to some of the great fictional consulting detectives of the past:
‘Every detective-story writer had an amateur detective who was cleverer than the police. Sherlock Holmes, of course. Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey…’
‘Who on earth was he?’
‘Josephine Tey’s detective. But no, Reg, I forgot. He was a bona fide policeman.’
(In fact, Roderick Alleyn was also a law enforcement professional. His creator Ngaio Marsh was among the pioneers of the British police procedural, beginning with the first Roderick Alleyn novel called A Man Lay Dead, published in 1934.)
Wexford’s peregrinations throughout London are recounted in fascinating detail. I felt as though I were walking along side him. At one point in the investigation, as he checks in via cell phone with Tom Ede, the latter asks if he is anywhere near the West Hampstead cemetery. If so, he should seek out the tomb of Grand Duke Michael of Russia. In 1891, the Grand Duke made a marriage that not only displeased his cousin Czar Alexander III but was also illegal according to Imperial Law. He was sent to live in exile, and after some wandering on the continent chose England as the new dwelling place for his family. That’s where they were – the Grand Duke, his wife Countess Sophie of Merenberg, and their three children – when revolution overtook Russia in 1917. One wonders how they felt, watching from a safe distance, as the imperial regime that had spurned them was annihilated.
This story has nothing to do with the main narrative of the novel. It is yet another instance of Ruth Rendell in digressive mode. As a lesson in the vagaries of history, the story of the Grand Duke and his family is worth pondering.
I love Rendell’s digressions, and as you’ve probably already gathered, I loved this book.