A Dark-Adapted Eye (Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine)

  • By Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
  • First published: UK: Viking, 1986; US: Bantam, 1986

Vera Hillyard has been hanged for the murder of her sister Eden. How and why remains obscure until the end of this soporific crime novel.

A Dark-Adapted Eye was the first of Ruth Rendell’s 14 novels written by her literary alter ego / split personality Barbara Vine.

“Ruth and Barbara are two aspects of me,” the writer explained in a preface for her American readers. “Ruth is tougher, colder, more analytical, possibly more aggressive. Ruth has written all the novels, created Chief Inspector Wexford. Ruth is the professional writer. Barbara is more feminine. It is Barbara who sews. If Barbara writes it is letters that she writes.

“For a long time I have wanted Barbara to have a voice as well as Ruth. It would be a softer voice speaking at a slower pace, more sensitive perhaps, and more intuitive.”

The result is a work in the line of Mary Fitt (e.g. Death and Mary Dazill, Requiem for Robert, Clues to Christabel), or Peter Dickinson’s later works (Hindsight, Death of a Unicorn): straight novels that happen to involve murder, and in which character matters more than story.

Contemporary critics were enthusiastic about anything that seemed to transcend the genre; The Washington Post, for instance, declared: “As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has burst brilliantly out of the mystery writer class. The characters in A Dark-Adapted Eye are not puppets manipulated for the sake of a tricky plot; they are the plot.” Rendell’s fellow crime writers P.D. James, Julian Symons, and Peter Lovesey lauded the work. (So did Richard Adams. Not a recommendation. Had to read Watership Down in eighth grade. That was the only time I flunked English.) The Mystery Writers of America awarded it an Edgar. Only a few dissenting voices were heard; Kirkus called it “leisurely, subdued, half-successful”, while Barzun and Taylor weren’t convinced.

But Eye is unsatisfying in many ways. It is essentially literary women’s fiction, and there’s damnall here for a male reader. The atmosphere is cloyingly domestic; we wade through gossip about babies and love affairs, and cosy details about dresses, hairstyles, cosmetics, biscuits, and hard-boiled eggs. The telling is maddeningly slow; where Rendell is taut and succinct, Vine is discursive, meandering, fussy. The first few chapters present a great many names whom we are almost expected to know and be interested in. What little story there is, is told at second-hand: through the narrator’s memories of forty years before; through extracts from a modern true crime book; through conversations with rambling old ladies; and through faded letters. The murder when it eventually comes is anticlimactic and almost an afterthought. The vaunted characterisation is surprisingly flat; Vera is first disagreeable then suddenly vulnerable, without ever being interesting, Eden is merely vapid and selfish. Meagre amusement comes from Francis’s efforts to torment his mother. To be Ruthless, this is far from the best fruit of the Vine.

Adapted for BBC television in 1993, with Helena Bonham Carter, Celia Imrie, and Sophie Ward.

NOTE: Like The Tree of Hands, the plot concerns possessive desire for a child that is not one’s own.

Other reviews

Kirkus (15 June 1986): In her non-detective crime novels, Ruth Rendell has usually offered close-ups of psychopaths in the making, with dreadful, ironic crisscrossings as horrible deeds come closer and closer to fruition. Here, however, under a new pseudonym, Rendell takes a somewhat different approach to a tale of obsession and mayhem: this leisurely, subdued, half-successful novel is a sly exercise in delayed exposition – with the details of a bygone crime emerging bit by bit, circuitously, with a teasing buildup that doesn’t quite pay off sufficiently. The narrator is middle-aged Faith Severn, whose aunt (we soon learn) was Vera Hillyard, hanged for murder back in the late 1940’s. But whom did Vera kill? And why? And what were the assorted family secrets involved in the case? The reader can only guess at first – as chunks of the story surface through Faith’s childhood reminiscences, through excerpts from a book-in-progress about the case, through old letters and other documents. We learn about Faith’s uneasy relationship with her snobbish, vain aunts: nervous Vera (with a much-absent husband and a nasty adolescent son) and the lovely, selfish, much younger Eden, who was virtually raised by her adoring older sister. We hear about the rumors that surfaced when Vera, near 40, gave birth to a baby during the war (ten months after her husband’s last visit!). And eventually, while Eden’s 1940’s experiences are sketched in (party-girl action during the war, marriage into wealth thereafter), the prime focus comes to rest on Vera’s slavish attachment to her small son Jamie – who ultimately becomes the object of a bitter duel between the once-devoted sisters: Eden, unable to have children herself, sets out (using her husband’s wealth and power) to take adoptive possession of Jamie … while the increasingly frail, unhinged Vera fights back desperately, pathetically, fatally. Rendell/Vine does a masterful job of unpeeling the layers of this grim, sad tale; Faith’s reminiscences (textured, one suspects, with autobiographical material) are wry, poignant, evocative. Some of the present-day subplots, on the other hand, are less effectively developed–especially the tepid tension surrounding the writing (eventually thwarted) of that new book about the case. And the one remaining mystery about the case isn’t nearly as tantalizing as it’s meant to be. Still: superior, sophisticated gothic entertainment from the queen of psychological suspense–who seems just as comfortable with a period piece as with the stark contemporary stories that are her forte.

Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 28th November 1986): A Dark-Adapted Eye is a story told by Faith Longley, who as a child witnessed the events she describes, but who can now understand and re-interpret their meaning as she ponders on the complex relationships, the family entanglements, the psychological pressures that led nearly forty years ago to murder.  Barbara Vine is, in fact, Ruth Rendell; the pseudonym is not a cloak, but a product-name, indicating to her usual readers that they’re going to get something slightly different.  And A Dark-Adapted Eye is certainly more leisurely, more of a novel, than Rendell’s other books; after a slow, sticky start it turns into a wholly absorbing narrative set in a marvellously recreated England of the early 1940s.

Julian Symons in the Sunday Times: This is a rich, complex novel with an ingenuity in construction worthy of Wilkie Collins. … Full of shifts and surprises … a modern novel with the Victorian virtues of a carefully devised plot unfolded for the reader with the most cunning art. Wilkie Collins would have admired it, and so would Dickens.

P.D. James: It is no secret that Barbara Vine is the distinguished crime writer Ruth Rendell and in A Dark-Adapted Eye we have Ms Rendell at the height of her powers. This is a rich, complex and beautifully crafted novel, which combines excitement with psychological subtlety. I salute a deeply satisfying achievement.

Peter Lovesey: A masterpiece of storytelling, a teasing,  intricately plotted mystery steeped in the past. She tells you so much and still springs so many surprises. And through it all, she sustains the sense of reality, the conviction that the murder is rooted in a family you may easily have met.

Richard Adams, author of Watership Down: Barbara Vine’s achievement is impressive. The story not only grips the reader totally, but also illustrates, with a wealth of compelling detail, a vanished world – the social and moral climate of England during the first half of this century.

Washington Post: As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has burst brilliantly out of the mystery writer class. The characters in A Dark-Adapted Eye are not puppets manipulated for the sake of a tricky plot. They are the plot, and they will linger in your memory long after you have closed the book with the contented sigh that is the ultimate tribute to a first-rate novel.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The indefatigable Ruth Rendell has taken a pseudonym to avoid glutting the market with her output.  This item belongs to her psychological series and shows her ability as a narrator and delver into quirky minds and situations.  A family is under the microscope wielded by Faith Severn, one of them, whose Aunt Vera has been hanged for murder.  Description and comment keep the reader going, but a thought recurs: ‘Interesting—if true.’  The reason for this doubt is that saturated as we are with psychiatries of all kinds, we find we have now no way of testing fiction by reality—almost anything goes—and this latitude, instead of increasing belief, destroys it.

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