Gremlins in the Vault

Here I am, on campus again (this time on a Sunday). Just going to finish off some urgent things in advance of a busy week next week: tomorrow in London for the first meeting of the 2013 Astronomy Grants Panel; Tuesday all day interviewing for a new faculty position in Physics, Wednesday preparing the University’s equivalent of the 5-year plan; most of Thursday interviewing prospective PhD students; continued, p. 94….

Anyway, I thought I’d warm up my typing fingers this afternoon with a quick post that’s got nothing to do with my job and will probably generate negligible interest among my readers, but the subject got on my mind so here goes anyway. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m a bit of a fan of detective stories. I haven’t blogged much about Crime Fiction per se but I have referred to various examples in the course of other posts. Having recently given up entirely on television and done a bit more travelling on buses and trains, I’ve had a bit more time to read so have started to clear the sizable backlog of books I’ve bought but never actually opened.

All of which brings me to The Vault by Ruth Rendell. This is the 24th book to feature her detective Inspector Wexford, although Wexford, having retired,  is no longer an Inspector in this book. The plot of The Vault revolves around the discovery of four bodies (two male, and two female) in a coal hole belonging to a posh house in St John’s Wood. Wexford is drawn into the subsequent investigation by a friend of his who is still a policeman and thereafter the story interweaves two different genres (the Police procedural and the psychological thriller) in Rendell’s inimitable style, alongside beautifully nuanced description of the parts of London in which the drama unfolds.

In parenthesis I’d say that Ruth Rendell is one of the few crime novelists whose writing transcends the limitations of the crime genre and establishes her as a major literary figure in her own right, a feat only rarely accomplished in the history of detective fiction, the American Dashiel Hammett being another example.

When I bought it I didn’t realize that it was a kind of sequel to her earlier novel A Sight for Sore Eyes in which Wexford does not appear. In The Vault, set 12 later, Wexford only has the four initially unidentified bodies to work on; he hasn’t read the earlier book either. Anyway, to cut a long (detective) story short, three of the bodies relate to the earlier plot whereas the fourth was added to the coal-hole collection about 10 years later. As for the initial three, it seems two were victims of the murderous third who accidentally fell into the hole after disposing of their bodies there.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and detail of Ruth Rendell’s writing as much as ever, but when I’d finished the book I was troubled by one glaring problem with the plot. If the murderer, Teddy Brex, had indeed fallen into the coal hole by accident, who closed the manhole cover that sealed him in? It’s essential to the plot that nobody find the bodies for a dozen years, but surely if the lid had been open someone would have looked inside? Worried that I was just being dense and had missed some detail, I searched around the net and found a blog review on which a similar comment was made.

Part of the pleasure of reading a mystery novel, as is the case with a crossword puzzle, is to see the pieces fall nearly into place at the end. That’s always happened with Ruth Rendell’s books before, but this one left me profoundly unsatisfied. For a writer of her quality, the lapse was most disappointing. It won’t put me off reading other books, of course. Maybe it’s all explained in the earlier book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a flaw in this one.

Anyway, this particular fly in the ointment led to an interesting little exchange on Facebook about plot errors in The Day of the Jackal so I thought it might be fun to use it as an example, and see if anyone out there in internetshire can think of similar narrative gremlins affecting films or novels? They don’t have to be detective stories, of course, although for reasons described above I think they are especially irksome in that context.

The comment box beckons, but make sure you don’t fall in…

7 Responses to “Gremlins in the Vault”

  1. What’s your view of Dorothy Sayers? I think that at her best she also transcends the limitations of the mystery genre.

    I agree with you about Hammett. I’ve never gotten around to reading Rendell; I’ll give her a try.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, Dorothy L. Sayers is one of the writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction who stands out as a fine novelist in general. Ngaio Marsh is another.

      I’d also put Raymond Chandler in the same category, but Hammett’s the business IMHO.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Ted: I’m not into this genre but I think The Nine Tailors by DLS is an absolutely outstanding read. It drips the Fens of that era. I tried and failed to get on with her other Lord Peter stories, although I think her radio plays based on the four gospels do work well and I revere some of her non-fiction writing.

  2. Jules Venning Says:

    In the genre of film non sequiturs stand out in any/every David Lynch film. He just laughs them off with ‘dream’ sequence comments. Yes, holes in plot continuity can annoy. In the case of RR maybe there’s a sequel with another serial killer?

  3. Jules Venning Says:

    Glad you like NZ’s Ngaio Marsh. We’re quite proud of her. Knew her in the days of Sam Neill and I being in Dramasoc at CAnterbury 1960s.

  4. What is unusual for me about many Rendell novels is that she convinces the reader, that, given the right circumstances, they too could be the bad guy. It’s a pity the dated TV series on Wexford don’t do her stories justice, someone should do a remake.
    Re missing points in the plot, it was probably edited out by some twentysomething editor.
    My latest hobby is watching the ‘deleted scenes’ at the end of a DVD; it’s amazing the number of of times a vital scene is dropped in favour of ‘pace’

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