Under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has written a series of psychological thrillers which are distinguished by the subtlety with which they draw readers into tangled webs of love, guilt and remorse.
100 Must-read Crime Novels, Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison
A Fatal Inversion came out in the mid 1980’s. Much of the novel’s action takes place during that time period, and also ten years earlier. It is during that earlier period that a 19-year-old boy named Adam Verne-Smith inherits a house. Not just any house – this one is quite grand, with a beautiful garden and an adjacent woodland. It is all quite idyllic – you could almost say, Edenic.
The house is called Wyvis Hall. It’s a family home and was lived in by Adam’s great-uncle Hilbert until the time of that person’s death. Adam was well acquainted with Wyvis Hall, having gone there as a child with his parents. In point of fact Lewis Verne-Smith, Adam’s father, had expected to be the new owner of Wyvis Hal. However, Lewis’s sycophantic ways got under Hilbert’s skin. The old man willed the property to the son, largely to spite the father.
At the time that Adam comes into his inheritance, he’s the archetypal impoverished student. His first thought is to sell Wyvis Hall, take the money and run. He drives down to the property with his friend Rufus, a pre-med student. And his experience of the place on this particular visit changes everything:
On either side the drift was thick with cow parsley, its powdery white heads coming to an end of their long blooming. It had a sweetish scent, like icing sugar, like childhood birthday cakes, that mingled with the winy perfume of the elders. All the trees were in full leaf but the oaks and beeches had not long so been, so that t heir foliage was still a fresh bright color and the lime trees were hung with pale yellow-green dangling flowers. The pinewood looked just the same as ever, it always did, it was always dark and dense with very narrow passages through it that would surely allow nothing bigger than a fox to weave its way through. Imperceptibly the trees must have grown, yet they seemed to Adam no different from when he was a child coming up to fetch the milk and when, on sunless mornings, he had felt a kind of menace from the wood. Even then he had not liked to look into it too much but had kept his eyes on the ground or straight ahead of him because the wood was the kind of place you saw in storybook illustrations or even in your dreams and out of which things were liable to come creeping.
And then, there is the house itself:
Things, buildings, stretches of land, are said to look smaller when we grow up. And this seems only natural, just what one would expect….Wyvis Hall, logically, should have looked smaller to Adam but it did not, it looked much larger. This must have been because it was his now, he owned it. It was his and it seemed a palace.
Vine/Rendell’s description of the Hall’s exterior is so richly detailed that it fairly shimmers in the reader’s mind:
The whole area out here was paved and small stonecrops and sedums with white and yellow starry flowers grew up between the tones. In a couple of narrow-mouthed stone vessels grew a conifer and a bay tree. The rose which mantled the house must have put out a thousand flowers and these were at the peak of their blooming, not a petal yet shed, each blossom the pink of a shell within and the pink of coral on its outer side.
And on it goes. Adam fishes the key out of his pocket and prepares to enter his newly acquired domain: “He was aware of a profoundly warm, placid, peaceful silence, as if the house were a happy animal asleep in the sun.”
Almost from the beginning, this novel exerted exceptional sway over my mental processes. When I wasn’t actually immersed in the text, I was brooding over the direction the narrative was taking. This powerful pull was partly due, I think, to the artful way in which Rendell structured this novel. We follow the action primarily through the eyes of three men: Adam, Rufus, and a third person, Shiva Manjusri. All of these individuals were present at Wyvis Hall during the fateful summer of 1976. The novel begins in the present time of the mid-1980’s. A ghoulish discovery has been made on the grounds of the Hall. It threatens to implicate Adam, Rufus, and Shiva in a ghastly event that took place while they were all three living there. But it is clear that even before the revelation becomes public knowledge, these three men have each been living lives deformed by guilty knowledge.
Here’s the thing, though: Rendell withholds that knowledge from the reader for as long as possible, revealing its contours only gradually, as the novel progresses. At times I found this exasperating, but even more than that, I found it addicting. I simply had to know.
One of the signal triumphs of A Fatal Inversion is the degree to which Rendell takes you inside the minds of her characters. This is often an uncomfortable place to be – even excruciating, Yet in was the only way to understand how the events of the summer of 1976 could ever have taken place. And lest you wonder – there were women at Wyvis Hall. First there was Mary Gage, Rufus’s girlfriend. Then after Mary came Vivien, who arrived with Shiva. And finally, there was Zosie, she of the strange name and even stranger demeanor. What a combustible crew they proved to be, despite the indolent days they spent lying on the back patio on comforters and quilts piled higgledy piggledy, drinking wine and smoking dope, beneath the abnormally hot sun of that fateful summer season.
The plan had originally been for Adam, Mary, and Rufus to spend the summer in Greece, living off the proceeds of the sale of Adam’s property. This never happened, but at least, they thought, they could come up with another name for Wyvis Hall – something that sounded Greek. This they did: by inverting the word “Someplace.” It proved to be a fatal inversion….
The theme of expulsion from the garden of Eden resonates from time to time in this novel. But in the Bible, a right to be present in that blessed place is premised on the possession of an innocent and unsullied nature. Alas, none of these protagonists were possessed of such a nature. They were deeply flawed human beings, before the terrible unraveling ever began. In their youth, they were heedless and arrogant, taking their pleasures too freely, with no thought for the consequences. They brought the serpent with them, despoiling a place of pristine beauty almost from the moment they arrived there. There were occasional glimmers of humanity and generosity among them – but not many. Mary Gage was, in my view, the best of the lot, and even that’s not saying much.
Nevertheless, I could not put this book down. It had the quality almost of a fable, a morality tale. And enraging though the characters’ behavior often was, one wanted to know their respective fates. Would they have the chance to redeem themselves?
In A Fatal Inversion, the first book published under the pseudonym, all the qualities which have made the Barbara Vine novels so powerful, were already in place. (100 Must-read Crime Novels.)
Passionate Ruth Rendell fan that I am, I’ve known about this book for a long time, and have always meant to read it. Then last month, I saw it listed in a Wall Street Journal feature piece as one of “Five Best Psychological Mysteries.” Time to read it. Maybe it was my mood, but right now I consider A Fatal Inversion to be the best novel of psychological suspense that I have ever read
Even so, I have questions about what happened at the end and would like to talk to someone about them. In point of fact, I think A Fatal Inversion would be a great book discussion book. Unfortunately, it’s not in print in the U.S. Also it is not owned by the Howard County Library System, although it is available through interlibrary loan. I downloaded it onto my Kindle at a a cost of $10.08. .