Make Death Love Me (Ruth Rendell)

He wasn’t afraid. With a vague wry amusement, he thought that he wasn’t afraid because he didn’t mind if they killed him, he had nothing to live for. Perhaps all his life with its boredom, its pain and its futility, had simply been designed to lead up to this moment, meeting death on a wet afternoon for seven thousand pounds.

Chapter 5

Make Death Love Me is the tale of two fantasists: Alan Groombridge, a middle-aged bank clerk trying to escape his ghastly family, and Nigel Thaxby, an amateur bank robber and his accomplice Marty, whose only knowledge of crime comes from film and television. When the criminals storm the bank and kidnap the cashier, Joyce, Alan sees his opportunity to steal £3,000 – enough to live on for a year, enough to be free. But freedom comes with a price…

There is a certain sub-genre of the English crime novel which we might describe as the Existentialist black comedy of suburban life. It is a satire of middle-class mores, in which a rather ineffectual man tries to escape from stifling mundanity through fantasy and then crime. Francis Iles’s Malice Aforethought is perhaps the most famous example, but Julian Symons specialized in the genre. (See, for instance, The Man Whose Dreams Came True.) They are not my favourite sort of crime fiction, but Rendell’s effort is taut and absorbing.

Rendell’s protagonist is the unhappily married Alan Groombridge. He hates his deaf, right-wing father-in-law; he loathes his over-painted 37-year-old wife, who looks 45; he detests his arrogant, bullying son; and he despises his daughter, a bad-tempered teenage slut.

Rendell has an acute eye for the snobbery of the lower middle classes. Reading in company is unsociable, his wife and father-in-law tell him, while they watch television. Alan is forced to wear sports jackets to attend the neighbours’ dreary parties where husbands and wives complain about the cost of living. “Cars, jobs, the cost of living – instinctively he knew that was all nonsense. No free, real person would ever talk of such things.”

At the age of 30, Alan discovers Shakespeare and poetry, but that only makes him more miserable.

For his wits were sharpened, his powers of perception heightened, and he became discontented with his lot. In this world there were other things apart from Pam and the children and the bank and the Heyshams and the Kitsons, and shopping on Saturdays and watching television and taking a caravan in the Isle of Wight for the summer holidays. Unless all these authors were liars, there was an inner life and an outer experience, an infinite number of things to be seen and done, and there was passion.

He had come late in life to the heady intoxication of literature and it had poisoned him for what he had.

And so Alan escapes into fantasy – of being rich, of stealing from the bank, of falling in love with a slender girl with long black hair.

Another fantasist, also “living in a world of dreams”, is Nigel Thaxby, a doctor’s son who drops out of life, because he cannot face the prospect of middle-class life: “He got it into his head that if he did do any work and eventually got a degree, the chances were he wouldn’t get a job. And if he did get one all that would come out of it was a house like his parents’ and a marriage like his parents’ and a new car every four years and maybe a child to cram full of useless knowledge and pointless aspirations.” So he walks out of university, ends up living in a commune, then on Social Security, dreaming of becoming the European emperor of crime. His fantasies are violent, sadistic: making Joyce his slave, physically abusing her, scorning her.

Nigel is also impotent: “Reality was unbearable, he wanted oblivion.”

Rendell, like many post-WWII crime writers, is ambivalent towards literature and imagination. A key figure is the philosopher Ambrose Engstrand, who argues: “Fiction causes most of our troubles because it teaches us to fantasize and lead vicarious lives instead of coming to terms with reality.” But the philosopher’s realism is also destructive, his daughter-in-law Una complains; he can make “things that are beautiful and fragile” mundane, because he thinks it is for the best.

While literature and fantasy can lead people like Nigel astray, it can also inspire. Alan and Una fall in love over their shared pleasure of talking about books; for the first time, he has met someone he can relate to.

“I can’t imagine life without you now,” he tells her.

“You can’t imagine it but you could live it,” she replies.

His life with his family was bleak; he considers himself a bad father and a bad husband, indulging in self-pity, not giving love.  “He wanted to go out and rush up and down Montcalm Gardens, shouting that he was free and happy and had found the meaning of life. A great joy possessed him.”

And (SPOILERS!) Alan dies saving Joyce the kidnapped cashier. It is a chivalrous death, likened to Chrétien de Troyes and Tennyson; he envisages himself as Lancelot protecting Guinevere. It is the sacrifice he has dreamt of, laying down his life to rescue a woman. It is also an escape; having found freedom, he does not need to return to his suburban confinement. This is, after a fashion, a happy ending for him – a good death.

Blurb (UK)

Alan Groombridge played a game — a solitary and dangerous game.  As manager of the sub-branch of the Anglian–Victoria Bank in a Suffolk village, he had access to a fair amount of cash.  In the privacy of his office he would on occasion indulge in the fantasy of absconding with enough of that cash for perhaps just a year of freedom from the tedium of his job and domestic background.  But he always ended up putting the money back in the safe.

Then one day the secret fantasy became a reality; a grim reality that caught up not only Alan but also his young girl cashier in the most tangled of webs.  And the catalysts that brought about this change?  A middle-class drop-out called Nigel Thaxby and a more typical layabout, Marty Foster: both with their own ideas on how to get rich quick.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (1 July 1979): Rendell just keeps getting better and better. A Judgment in Stone (1977) was a tour de force in her crime-from-the-criminal-point-of-view mode. A Sleeping Life (1978) brought back Inspector Wexford at his best. And now, without losing an iota of the understated, unsentimental crispness that is her trademark, she expands slightly beyond the mystery/crime genre: this new story has a double plot a bit reminiscent of Victor Canning, and it exudes a warmth rarely found in Rendell-land. The launchpad for both plot lines is a pathetic bank robbery in a Suffolk village. The two young misfits who rob the bank at lunchtime do get away with 4000 pounds, but they must also take with them homely, busty teller Joyce—who has seen their faces. (Their stocking masks get drenched in the rain.) While the panicky robbers and surly prisoner Joyce set up an impossible, awful, sexless menage a trois in a seedy London suburb, someone else is, on the other hand, enjoying himself: bank-manager Alan Groombridge, unhappily married and a bookish daydreamer, was watching the robbery while hiding in a closet (fondling 3000 pounds in bank cash as was his wont), and he has grabbed the opportunity to run away to London with his small fortune—the police, et al., believe him to have been kidnapped along with Joyce. So Rendell cuts back and forth from the increasingly grim state of affairs at the robbers’ fiat (one of them is coming clown with hepatitis, the other’s gone round the bend) to Alan’s rebirth in the nicest neighborhoods in London—new name, new home, and miraculous new love. But… Alan feels guilty about running away, about not helping the police to find poor kidnapped Joyce—so when he accidentally stumbles on the trail of the robbers, he must follow that trail and try to locate Joyce himself. The dark comedy and bright romance here quickly shift to taut drama and tragedy—but Rendell supports every jolt of suspense with dazzling shorthand characterization and detail-perfect atmosphere. A can’t-stop-reading, humanized melodrama that could also be, in the right hands, the makings of a gem of a movie.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): When Mrs. Rendell writes tales other than those about Insp. Wexford, she does something either very good or negligible.  The present effort falls in the second class.  Two crimes, loosely linked, are seen from the side of the perpetrators and the incidents, like the attempted ‘psychology’, strike one as routine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s