The Face of Trespass (Ruth Rendell)

  • By Ruth Rendell
  • First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1974; US: Doubleday, 1974

Rating: 3 out of 5.

He was crying now for Drusilla, for obsession unconquered, for loneliness and squalor and waste.

Gray Lanceston, once a promising young novelist, has fallen on hard times after a passionate affair with Drusilla Janus: beautiful, sexy … and married to a rich husband she suggested Gray murder.

Afflicted by writer’s block, Gray now lives in a filthy country hovel, passing his days by reading and fretting. He worries about money, about his dying mother, about the dog left at his cottage, and, most of all, about his former relationship with Drusilla.

One of Rendell’s early books – 13th out of 66 novels – Face is small-scale and slow-moving, but sharply focused and sympathetically characterised. Both Gray and Drusilla are children in adult’s bodies, Gray never having quite grown up, and ill-equipped to deal with what life throws him, Dru spoilt, selfish, and demanding. (She is named after the sister and lover of Caligula, and the two-faced deity, or object of worship.) The twist at the end is predictable, but it’s effectively done.

Face also contains what may be the only reference to Dr. Thorndyke in all Rendell’s books.


The Guardian (Matthew Coady, 28th March 1974): Spineless one-book novelist caught in suburban Jezebel’s flytrap. Good in spots but slowish. Time she resumed trad mystery-mongering and gave the atmospherics a rest.

Kirkus (1st April 1974): In case you’ve forgotten, Ruth Rendell is easily the equivalent of Patricia Highsmith – a belle dame sans merci who can be amusing and unpleasant at the same time and there’s no telling what will happen to poor Gray Lanceton, whose finances have totally collapsed along with his affair with a young married woman who would have liked him to dispose of her husband. Instead, he’s left to brood alone in a hovel, to be called to the bedside of his mother in France, to take care of a friend’s dog who is also in a terminal condition, and to be thoroughly taken in… the custody of the police. As good a book as she’s done and it could hardly be better.

Evening Standard (Andrew Hope, 2nd April 1974): It’s a long time since I came across a really convincing femme fatale in a thriller, but Ruth Randall has created one in this her 13th novel. How she sets up her lover to murder her husband is the core of the story, set mainly in Epping Forest and France. I found it absorbing.

Times Literary Supplement (5th April 1974): This is the story of Gray, a failed writer and nearly alienated man, sick with infatuation for a corrupt, rich, married girl, whom he dare not see for fear of her terrible demands. Ruth Rendell conveys the derelict half-dream, half-nightmare life Gray is leading in an Essex hovel far better than a crime-writer need, and through this, and his sad, unsatisfied love for a dog and for his ridiculous French stepfather, makes credible the blindness that allows him to be led to total disaster – or, rather, to disaster that would have been total had it not been for the conventional crime-writer’s beginning and end.

Coventry Evening Telegraph (Alan Clegg, 18th April 1974): Thirteen – unlucky for some. But not for Ruth Rendell who in her 13th novel The Face of Trespass proves that she is a “natural” in the field of crime story-telling.

If you are new to her work this latest book comes highly recommended. If you have followed her success you will find further evidence of the skill that keeps her in the top fight.

Birmingham Mail (31st May 1974): Subtle, professional crime novel, with action ranging from the Home Counties to France. No wild excitement, but everybody quite liked it in an unsensational way.

The Daily Telegraph (Violet Grant, 6th June 1974): The most suspenseful book of the batch is Ruth Rendell’s The Face of Trespass, the story of a promising novelist whose career is being ruined by his affair with a rich and unscrupulous married woman. In his decrepit cottage in Epping Forest he sits with the telephone unhooked, trying to forget his obsession and the crime the girl is urging him to commit.

Sunday Express (Graham Lord): A marvellously absorbing crime novel that tingles with pace, tension, mystery, and sudden shock. Its plot is intricate and beautifully worked out, its characters subtle and completely credible, its style unobtrusively accomplished.

The Times (H. R. F. Keating): A beautiful double-take plot. And characters seen with compassion. Her best yet.

6 thoughts on “The Face of Trespass (Ruth Rendell)

  1. I had such a traumatic experience with my one and only attempt at reading Ruth Rendell that I’ve never been able to psych myself up to give her another try. I suppose I should. I really do find crime novels written after about 1960 heavy going.


    1. Which Rendell was that?

      The Wexford books are reliable, but I find her non-series books uneven. Some of them are wonderful (The Crocodile Bird), but too often what interests her repels me: miserable, lonely, deeply dysfunctional people in hellish circumstances. I did not at all like The Killing Doll, Talking to Strange Men, or The Keys to the Street.


      1. It was Road Rage.

        My problem with Rendell was the problem I have with most crime fiction of the past fifty years or so – too much wallowing in misery and degradation, too much anger, too much heavy-handed messaging, too much weird twisted stuff, too much time spent in the most disgusting corners of the human psyche. There are plenty of other modern crime writers who are of course far worse than Rendell in that respect.

        I gave up on post-1960s crime fiction because it made me feel too dirty and miserable.

        I read detective fiction to make me feel better, not to make me hate myself and hate humanity. Sorry for getting into a rant!


      2. That’s the one in which Dora Wexford is kidnapped, right? I haven’t read that since it came out!
        But, yes, that’s an accurate description of a lot of modern crime fiction. I gave up on Minette Walters after Acid Row, which is all about police sieges, paedophilia, and child kidnapping in a housing estate. Lovely!
        But not all post-1960s crime fiction is bad.
        Reginald Hill is great; he has his dark moments, but there’s a lot of light and joy in his books, too. He’s one of the few writers of his generation who has a sense of humour that isn’t “ironic”. Tellingly, he was a Terry Pratchett fan.
        And you should read Christopher Fowler – they’re in the line of Carr, Innes, and Crispin: flamboyantly imaginative crimes and set-ups (some of them impossible), quirky sleuths, and some jaw-dropping solutions.
        Colin Dexter’s plots are clever, too, although he can be a bit sordid.
        As for Rendell – of the Wexfords, maybe try Put on by Cunning?


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