By Ruth Rendell
First published: UK, Hutchinson, 1984; US, Pantheon Books
This is a bad case of magical thinking.
“The winter before he was sixteen, Pup sold his soul to the devil.”
That’s leaving it rather late; I was already seven when I lit guttering candles, did unspeakable things to a goat, and delivered up my teddy bears to the powers of darkness.
(All hail the tentacled horrors of the nethermost pit, and may they rend our flesh and devour our brains!)
It hasn’t, I regret to say, had much success.
As Aleister Crowley once remarked: ” I am the Wickedest Man in the World, the Beast. Can you lend me a fiver?”
Pup, though, is a budding young magus. The occult keeps him occupied, until he discovers girls. He gets them into bed by telling them he’s a virgin. (It’s a novel technique, I’ll grant him that.)
His sister Dolly takes him seriously. She’s one of Rendell’s standard nutcases – the neurotic female, like Eunice Parchman in A Judgement in Stone.
Pathologically introverted, with a naevus (facial birthmark), her hobbies include talking to her dead mother and stepmother’s spirits; communing with Anubis; drinking gallons of wine; and trying to push people under trains.
She’s not the only one with a screw loose. There’s an Irish paranoid schizophrenic who’s never quite sure whether he’s Diarmit Bawne, Conal Moore, an insect – or if he exists at all. Convinced that people will demolish his flat in the daytime, he lurks in a tunnel and cuts off women’s heads.
I know the problem. Invisible people come into my flat when I’m out, and move the walls around. My friends tell me they’re not really there. I know better. I‘m really not all there. (Write to me c/o Colney Hatch.)
Pup and Dolly’s father (the dull nithing type) reads historical faction. His second wife married him for her convenience, and wants to have an abortion. And their bimbo friend has just learnt her husband’s gay, and wants something nasty to happen to his boyfriend.
They’re all, as Agatha once remarked, very unpleasant people.
This is Rendell at low ebb: jamming a lot of weirdoes and misfits together, and ending on a downer.
“Everything that had happened to them had inexorably led to this end,” she writes in the last paragraph – but it really doesn’t feel that way. It lacks the logic or inevitability of, say, Judgement or The Lake of Darkness. One might call it a diabolus ex machina ending.
(The other interpretation, of course, is that Pup did sign on the dotted line with the devil, and the coincidences and bizarre plotting are all Satanic in origin.)
Killing Doll is also one of Rendell’s bleakest, most joyless books. It comes from the ’80s, when she was losing interest in the murder mystery, and preferred to write psychological thrillers like (deep breath) Live Flesh and Talking to Strange Men.
Rendell is fascinated with the unprepossessing: unremittingly drab, dreary, and awful people.
She writes like a praying mantis, mandibles twitching as she catalogues human beings’ home furnishings (linoleum), what they eat (linoleum), what they wear (linoleum), and their sexual habits (linoleum).
Her precise lists of shopping, furniture, and food are as repellent as her descriptions of sagging, sweaty flesh.
- “Mrs Fitter had a thin, brown, wrinkled body with breasts like pigskin purses and grey pubic hair.”
- “Her rounded golden-skinned arm was covered with soft down which for some reason had become erect.”
- “That evening they all ate together in the kitchen once more: tinned spaghetti, corned beef, granary rolls, St Ivel cheese spread, de-frosted chocolate éclairs.”
Frankly, I’d like to see Mrs Bradley or Flora Poste – paragons of sanity – walk into this Rendell novel, and tidy it up.
(Note: I’m halfway through A Sight for Sore Eyes, and rather enjoying it.)
Times Literary Supplement (Patricia Craig, 16th March 1984):
When she isn’t writing plain detective fiction, with efficient Inspector Wexford to lay the wrongdoers by the heels, Ruth Rendell specialises in psychotic goings-on in the ill-appointed bedsitters and drab family homes of the inner London suburbs. Her latest novel, of this type, starts with a memorable piece of hocus-pocus: Pup (Peter), fifteen, whose mother is dying, and whose sister Dolly (Doreen) has a blemish in the form of a naevus on her cheek, sells his soul to the devil in a makeshift ceremony diffidently performed in the sodden tunnel of a disused railway near his home. To Pup, this action is more a joke than anything else, though it’s the prelude to an enthusiasm for the occult, which briefly adds interest to his life, before going the way of commoner adolescent obsessions like football or stamp-collecting. It’s a matter of greater import to Dolly, who needs to believe in her younger brother’s powers; Dolly’s increasing battiness leads her to fasten on the supernatural as a source of authority and hope. She starts attending séances, and soon produces a row of dolls—she’s a dressmaker by profession—of which one at least is an effigy of an enemy. The usual business with pins ensues, but it isn’t until Pup is persuaded to disembowel the doll that an outcome satisfactory to Dolly is effected. Myra, the couple’s vulgar young stepmother, is found dead after an accident with a syringe.
The climax of Dolly’s career as an exterminator, which began modestly enough with her neighbour’s cat, is yet to come. In the meantime, her senses deranged by drink and brooding, she exhibits mannerisms peculiar to the sad and spinsterish, eventually manufacturing a couple of private spectres for herself, her mother and stepmother, who address her exactly as they did in real life: ‘To be perfectly honest, you ought to do it, Doreen.’ The effect of this pair of comic chimeras is to lighten the atmosphere of seediness and degeneracy in which the characters, like all those devised by Ruth Rendell for a particular purpose, are located. The purpose is to construct a pattern out of converging neuroses, with a deadly occurrence at the point of impact. As a counterpart to disfigured Dolly, in the current novel, we have a schizophrenic Irishman with the colourful name of Diarmit Bawne. Two terrorist bombs, one in Co. Armagh and one in Belfast, have done for Diarmit, depriving him of even the inadequate wits he started out with (allusion to Northern Ireland is rapidly becoming a literary device for signalling destructiveness and disease). Now, some years after these unfortunate events, he has come insecurely to rest in a street not far from the home of Pup and Dolly. There is little to Diarmit apart from his butcher’s equipment, the tools of his past trade.
Ruth Rendell cannot be faulted in the area of technical ingenuity, and her assurance and boldness are equally remarkable. Her novels are clever and engrossing; however, there is something a little workaday and uneloquent about their narrative style, which hampers the production of a genuine frisson, and allows an opening for lurid feeling instead.
Kirkus (29 May 1984):
Rendell returns to her favorite psychological-suspense device here: two separate story-lines that will eventually overlap – with fatal results. And, also as before (Lake of Darkness, Master of the Moor), Rendell’s quiet English setting harbors a surprising, slightly excessive number of criss-crossing nut-cases. The principal plot focuses on the London-suburb household of mousey businessman Harold Yearman, whose wife has just died – leaving behind a strange, devoted pair of siblings: Dolly, in her 20s, a withdrawn innocent, psychically scarred by a large facial birthmark; and her teenage brother “Pup,” short and insecure, who becomes bookishly obsessed with witchcraft, casting spells in his mini-temple upstairs. But then, while Dolly (a wine alcoholic, ever more disturbed) comes to believe utterly in Pup’s abracadabra, Pup himself soon grows taller, discovers sex–and no longer needs the occult outlet. Will he, nonetheless, keep doing magic for Dolly’s benefit? Yes, he will – because he loves her. . . and because his supposed witchcraft-club meetings give him a cover for his many amorous assignations. (Dolly is shocked, jealous, at each hint of Pup’s sex-life.) So, when father Harold marries the youngish, vulgar Myra, Dolly persuades Pup to cast an evil spell on their “wicked stepmother”–who does indeed quite promptly die. (The real cause: a botched attempt at self-abortion.) This, of course, only reaffirms Dolly’s faith in Pup’s powers. And when Dolly’s new, first-ever friend, lovely Yvonne, reveals that her husband is deep in a homosexual affair, wacko Dolly – now hallucinating like crazy, hearing voices – insists that Pup come up with a spell to kill off Yvonne’s gay rival. But it’s Dolly herself who finally does non-magical murder. . . unhinged by jealousy (Pup and Yvonne pair off), alcoholism, paranoia, and – when Pup won’t magically remove her birthmark – bitter disappointment. Where’s the second story-line, you ask? Well, Dolly will predictably meet her violent end from a neighborhood maniac – whose psychotic doings are dropped in now and again. And this contrived subplot is a significant flaw here. But, if less masterful than the best Rendell psycho-suspense (Judgement in Stone, Make Death Love Me), this is a strong improvement over Master of the Moor – with genuine, haunting creepiness and achingly pathetic irony in the central portrait: an obsessed brother and sister, one surfacing to sanity while the other sinks ever deeper into madness.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):
Three deaths from ‘magic’ connect the harmless Yearman family with a deranged youth who loves knives and tunnels. Mrs. Rendell likes to alternate her books about Wexford the wise, a sympathetic policeman, with others, not in a series, that are sometimes called psychological thrillers. These readers find them not as thrilling and not as psychological as the author might wish, but they are bound to admire and enjoy the ever skilful writing.