A Demon in My View (Ruth Rendell)

  • By Ruth Rendell
  • First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1976; US: Doubleday, 1977

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A Demon in My View, winner of the 1976 Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger for Best Novel of the Year, is Rendell’s first exploration of the truly warped mind.

Her early non-series books had dealt with relatively normal (if neurotic) characters in abnormal situations: anxious housewives, suburban manslaughterers, young men in love with bad women. Henceforward, she presents a gallery of the truly disturbed and the downright dangerous: illiterate housekeepers and religious ex-tarts who go on killing sprees, paranoid schizophrenics who think they’re insects, rapists with a phobia of turtles. And it begins here.

In a dingy London suburb lives Arthur Johnson: prim, proper, peevish, and a psychopath. He fusses over his furniture, sniffs disapprovingly at the other tenants, and gets his kicks throttling sex-dolls in the cellar. That holds his more murderous instincts at bay, until another A. Johnson (Anthony) moves in. While he waits for his married mistress to leave her husband, Anthony is writing a Ph.D. thesis on the psychopathic personality – but he doesn’t recognise one under his own roof…

Reading Demon was cathartic. I read it when I was 14, and it gave me nightmares. While I had read plenty of Rendell, I had not read anything quite so grim before (except, perhaps, for Ouida Sebestyen’s Girl in the Box), or which put the reader in such a dysfunctional character’s mind. And I objected to the unfairness of Arthur destroying Anthony’s letters; I preferred (and prefer) books with heroes, not victims.

I fancy I was much too young for it; the Wexfords were ‘safe’ – particularly the TV series with avuncular George Baker – but this was intense. It put me off Rendell for several years, and I considered it the defining example of why modern crime novels were awful.

24 years later, older and slightly more mature, I’m indifferent to Demon, rather than disturbed. Parts of it are blackly comic (Arthur’s racist conviction that a West Indian lodger is into voodoo), parts of it are horrible (the incidents with the baby and the mouse are stomach-churning). It’s still oppressive; do we really want to spend time with someone like Arthur? Nor is the plotting as deft as, say, The Lake of Darkness. While Rendell adopts a dual narrative for, I believe, the first time, there are no great plot-twists, and the ending is abrupt. (Is it meant to be irony that ROT13 Neguhe vf xvyyrq orpnhfr gur uhfonaq fnj Nagubal’f yrggre jura ur unq fhccerffrq gur bgure yrggref?)

I cannot understand why it won the Gold Dagger in 1976. Rendell treated a similar theme much better in The Rottweiler (2003).

Filmed in 1991 with (a by no means typecast) Anthony Perkins:


Reviews

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 16th May 1976): Study of Arthur, obsessional murderer in dismal suburban house divided into flats. Despite repeated practise on wax model in cellar, he needs live victims. His namesake in the next flat is doing research into psychopaths but fails to diagnose Arthur. A bit over-intense, perhaps, in places, but the background of present-day flats and flat-dwellers is splendidly squalid.

The Sunday Telegraph (Francis Goff, 16th May 1976): On top floor of large, seedy flatlet house lives creepy, middle-aged bachelor. In cellar is shop-window mannequin on which for years he has been sublimating periodic urges. In flats between live various rootless people, black, white, khaki. Trouble starts when local children take dummy for Bonfire Night Guy – and Arthur needs something else to strangle. Goulish. Very convincing. Imagination, description, both top class.

The Guardian (Matthew Coady, 3rd June 1976): Ruth Rendell’s landscape in A Demon in My View is the crumbling inner suburb. Its houses are no longer homes but warrens for displaced persons. The dustbins overflow. A dank Victorian necropolis is never far away. Against this background an ageing psychopath who periodically “strangles” a plastic fashion model, kept in a cellar, suddenly finds his surrogate victim at the centre of a Guy Fawkes bonfire. It is an innocent act which awakens more lethal impulses.

Mrs. Rendell’s story, which is about petty revenge as well as murder, relies far too heavily on coincidence. What lends it fascination is the well-fleshed character of the prim, pompous, inadequate monster obsessed by cleanliness and punctuality, and forever yearning for the dark. On this score, the novel’s grip is every bit as effective as his own.

Times Literary Supplement (T. J. Binyon, 1st October 1976): Ruth Rendell’s latest is set in the seedy, rundown west London suburb of Kenbourne Vale. The large Victorian houses on streets and terraces which bear the names of Oxford colleges have been converted into flats and bedsitters; some have been demolished, others boarded up. The Odeon is now the Taj Mahal; Kemal’s Kebab House stands next to the local pub. Into a room on the ground floor of 142 Trinity Road moves Anthony Johnson; who is writing a thesis entitled “Some Aspects of the Psychopathic Personality”; in an immaculately clean flat on the top floor lives Arthur Johnson, a psychopath who has in the past strangled two young girls: almost too neat a juxtaposition, but in the event justified by its successful handling. The paths of the two Johnsons intertwine; a series of minor, seemingly insignificant events drives Arthur, once more, towards murder. A deeply satisfying and subtly ironic plot, and a good, depressing picture of west London.

Coventry Evening Telegraph (Alan Clegg, 21st July 1977): Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in my View is a top-class, exciting and brilliantly descriptive murder story. Bachelor Arthur Johnson is a picture of respectability, but Miss Rendell cleverly lifts the secret veil on a character destined to kill.

Aldershot News (4th November 1977): A Demon In My View by Ruth Rendell is a new novel by one of our best thriller writers. The central figure is a psychopathic murderer, Arthur Johnson. He finds release at first in “murdering” a plastic shop window model. Arthur has an apartment on the top floor of a large house divided into flats. The other tenants whose lives – and deaths – touch his are drawn with the subtlety and perception we have come to expect from Ruth Rendell.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Even when she abandons Kingsmarkham and Wexford, Mrs. Rendell does not give up her taste for gripping plots – witness the present tale about a 50-year old psycho and his vagaries.


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4 thoughts on “A Demon in My View (Ruth Rendell)

  1. This came suggested a few years ago as a Rendell I might enjoy as someone who has never read any Rendell. Maybe I’ll still get to it in due course, but the fact that I haven’t yet coupled with your less than thrilled reaction to it seems likely to delay that day even longer still… 😄

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  2. Thank you for linking to my post. This was one of my earliest experiences with Rendell and I will be curious, in time, to revisit it myself and see if it holds up for me. I don’t recall the material about a baby or mouse though I do recall Arthur’s racism.
    What I do remember is feeling that Rendell does a convincing job of exploring how someone who just seems a little odd can actually be more menacing and the almost tragic way old tendencies are inadvertently reactivated – the idea of people unwittingly creating tragedy seems to be a recurring theme in RR’s work but I may have been more struck by it here coming across it for the first time.

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