three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
Barbara Vine
user_rating: 
0

A-The Birthday PresentBarbara Vine is the pseudonym of acclaimed British writer Ruth Rendell, creator of the popular Inspector Wexford series as well as other murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, and short stories (recently reviewed: The Water’s Lovely, 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2007). The Birthday Present is the 13th novel Rendell has published as Barbara Vine.

The Story: A young Conservative MP in the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, Ivor Tesham seems "the quintessential English gentleman," but his wealth and ambition conceal a voracious appetite for women and sadomasochistic sex. As a birthday present, he hires two actors to kidnap his married mistress, Hebe Furnal, for a night of kinky sex games. But things go terribly wrong when the getaway car crashes and Hebe is killed. Frantic to hide his involvement, Tesham is driven to increasingly desperate measures while homely, isolated Jane Atherton, Hebe’s best friend and alibi for her secret trysts with Tesham, becomes more and more unbalanced as the police search for clues.
Shaye Areheart Books. 336 pages. $25. ISBN: 0307451984

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Vine is nothing if not a clear (though mischievous) storyteller, and so the plot unfolds with her usual clarity and grace. … It’s Vine’s ability to limn the sexual as well as the material have-and-have-not nature of recent British history that makes the book a tasty morsel for us, if not her characters." Ed Siegel

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"The crash sets off a chain of events, as usual in a Vine/Rendell story, that branches off in the most unexpected directions. … It’s a nasty story, told with wry black humor, and an ending that’s both happy and sad—and only marginally moralistic." Robert Croan

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Ruth Rendell, writing here as Barbara Vine, is both a Labour peer and a connoisseur of human iniquity, so it is no wonder that she has a high old time with this novel about a Tory politician in that notably sleaze-riddled period, the early Nineties. … Rendell is at her most mischievous and entertaining here, but the novel is a serious and sympathetic attempt to understand what makes an egotist tick." Jake Kerridge

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Within the first five pages of The Birthday Present, you know you’re in the hands of a mystery/thriller writer who’s in perfect control of her material. In addition to that fabulous control, Rendell/Vine maintains a matronly, almost magisterial tone that lends unexpected dignity to the goriest, creepiest material." Carolyn See

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although we’re reminded that ‘all political parties have their sleaziness,’ the story might be read as a cautionary fable for a particularly tense time, perhaps subtitled ‘How the Tories Shot Themselves in the Foot in the 1994 Elections.’ … Ivor can’t avoid becoming ridiculous; but because Vine leaves out nothing in portraying him, he remains likable—never admirable, but likable." Marilyn Stasio

Independent (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The novel becomes episodic, and at times long-winded. … Rendell’s Barbara Vine novels usually contain some of her sharpest writing, but it’s never quite clear whether The Birthday Present is a thriller which happens to have a Westminster setting or a book which aims to say something about the nature of Tory politics—or, indeed, which version of the Tory party she has in mind." Joan Smith

Guardian (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"The sad truth, however, is that all these promising sparks do not result in fireworks. … What’s more, the suspense worked up so potently in earlier Vine novels is not in evidence." Carrie O’Grady

Critical Summary

In her newest Barbara Vine novel, Rendell has crafted a subtly sordid tale studded with imaginative plot twists and black humor. Though she reveals Tesham’s eventual downfall within the first few pages, Rendell builds a great deal of tension into her complex, tightly constructed plot, and her descriptions of Tesham’s sexual adventures, though accurate, are never lurid. Interestingly, most British critics panned the novel—a possible reaction to the liberal Rendell’s political leanings or a jaded familiarity with the national events framing the plot. However, American critics praised The Birthday Present, calling it "one of [Rendell’s] best literary excursions" to date (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Readers in search of a smart, fast-paced thriller by an expert storyteller will appreciate Vine’s latest.