Talking to Strange Men (Ruth Rendell)

  • By Ruth Rendell
  • First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1987; US: Pantheon Books, 1987

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Rating: 1 out of 5.

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.

Contemporary reviews

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.