By Ruth Rendell
First published: UK, Hutchinson, 1987; US, Pantheon Books, 1987
The story involves schoolboys playing at spies, and a lonely man who wants to use them to have his revenge on his wife’s ex-lover, who is, of course, a paedophile. The protagonist’s sister was murdered, apparently—he claims—by her fiancé. There is also a twelve year old boy who willingly and knowingly goes out with a paedophile; a shop assistant who goes mad and attacks the protagonist; and a passage where the protagonist starts to masturbate but stops because his penis is flaccid.
All the characters are drab loners—miserable people in a lonely world—and so it is difficult to feel any interest in them. This is a study in emptiness: a nihilistic book which argues that life is cold and meaningless, full of betrayal and obsession, and that everyone is unhappy, solitary, and doomed to despair.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):
Subtle interweaving of the adult and adolescent worlds is this author’s speciality. A lonely man grieving over his unfaithful wife imaginatively interprets some coded messages that he discovers taped to the support of an automobile overpass (in Britain, a flyover). Unknown to him, the schoolboys who leave the messages are pretend-spies doing battle with their counterparts at a rival school. The consequences of multiple mix-ups, though hardly logical, are successful and occasionally humorous. As this book goes to press another Wexford tale, The Veiled One, is announced.