Ruth Rendell was (happily) a very prolific writer. And she was writing all the way up to her death this past spring. As a matter of fact there is still one more novel forthcoming this fall. I went through a phase where I read loads of her books--nearly all those written under her pen name Barbara Vine (I think those books are amongst my favorites by her), and quite a few of those written as Ruth Rendell, but I have as yet to pick up any of her Inspector Wexford novels. Maybe this is not a bad thing since now there will be no more books. There are more than two dozen Wexford novels, many of which I have on hand and will be filling out the remaining titles in my collection. So while there will be no more, I still have many books left to read and she is an author I would most happily read again. I think I will be busy with her work for quite some time.
Ruth Rendell was never one to shy away from difficult topics, though her stories have never made me queasy or felt as though they were filled with unnecessary violence. For that I have a lot of respect. She manages to capture the reader's attention, perhaps put them on edge even, and all without ever feeling as though the story was over the top. She often manages to use contemporary events in her stories and will delicately explore all the psychological nuances underneath--the motivations, the hypocrisies, the passions and abuses that might cause someone to be pushed over the edge into the realm of violence. And she is a master of bringing disparate characters seemingly completely unrelated to each other together in ways you won't imagine. She can pull the rug out from under you and give you a shocker just when you least expect it. And don't be surprised if you think you have a character all figured out and then she turns the table on you.
That's what she does in The Water's Lovely. To be honest she sort of threw me for a loop with this one and I had to set it aside for a bit and mull it over. I don't think I will be giving anything away (and I promise not to share too many details) by saying that, at least in this story, people you may find culpable and maybe even downright odious might just come away smelling of roses. And those that seem a little on the odd side and perhaps guilty, aren't really in all actuality. And that twists of fate are not always fair in delivering justice.
The novel was published in 2006, so it is a later book. I wonder (it's been a while since I read her work other than the odd novel here and there, so I can't compare not having stories fresh in mind) if it is just on the cynical side to a degree. She takes actual events that occurred at the time the book was published and throws her characters in them to fend for themselves. This is what left me somewhat uneasy. Honestly, though, this is exactly why I love her books. I may be unsettled by the way things turn out, but isn't that just what life is like sometimes?
The Water's Lovely is the story of two sisters, Ismay and Heather. A decade earlier their stepfather was found drowned in the bathtub. While none of the family was implicated in his death, a death eventually ruled accidental, there is a strong suspicion that Heather had something to do with it. Ismay and her mother returned home that fateful afternoon to find Heather at the top of the staircase, her clothes wet down the front, as she tells them to come and leads them into the bathroom and shows them the body. Heather was only thirteen. When the police were called in, Heather's mother tells them she and both girls had just come in from shopping. No questions were asked, either by the police or by Ismay, her mother or aunt. But the question ever after hangs over their heads.
Some things are best left alone and unsaid. Maybe it was the death of her husband, or maybe the worry of what Heather might have done, or maybe there is just something not quite right in the family, but Beatrix begins to go mad and must never be left alone. Now all these years later she lives with her sister Pamela in the upstairs part of the house and Ismay and Heather share the flat downstairs. Heather is a bit unusual, not pretty, but she works and seems fine if a little on the plain side. Ismay is attractive and independent and has a most attractive lover. When Heather begins dating a man from her work, Ismay wonders if perhaps she should tell him about her sister's past. Maybe he should know what might have occurred before things get too serious.
Ismay can't bring herself to tell him, so instead she confesses their past into a tape. A tape that will turn up later and cause endless problems. This is not your typical whodunnit. Did Heather kill her stepfather? In a way that's not the important question. Whether she did or didn't isn't what the plot hinges on. The "why" of the story is much more important, but even then, as the why is explored there is so much more at work in this story. The why by story's end almost seems as irrelevant as the who. Or maybe it is, but not in the way the reader expects it.
How many other books came before this one? In Ruth Rendell's hands, the stories are always fresh. She takes the same questions and manages to ask them in ways that are unexpected. Which is why I can read her over and over again. She is by far my favorite crime/mystery writer. This story left me a little unsettled, but I can appreciate the genius that went into telling it.