Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark Adapted EyeA Dark-Adapted Eye
Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
First published in the UK 1986, Viking
This edition Penguin, 1987
ISBN: 9780140086362
300 pages

In these circumstances alone one knows when someone is going to die. Vera would die at eight o’clock and that was that.

This is the third Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novel in the CWA’s top 100 (the others being A Fatal Inversion and A Judgement in Stone). In all three, she uses a similar approach to story-telling. The bare bones of the central crime are revealed almost immediately; the suspense comes from the slow uncovering of the details of the case. We know it’s Professor Plum, but we have to find out whether he did it in the study or the library, and whether the Inspector needs to evidence-bag the candlestick or the pistol.

In this case, Professor Plum is a famous murderess, the subject of true crime books and a waxwork figure in Madame Tussaud’s. Her story is being told 30 years after the fact by Faith Severn, niece to the Hillyard sisters Vera and Eden. Faith begins to visit the Hillyards as a young girl in 1939. Their rural home, Laurel Cottage in the village of Great Sindon, is a safe distance from war-torn London.

As with Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion, part of the book’s flavour comes from nostalgia. Rather than the golden summers of the hippy era, A Dark-Adapted Eye looks back to the economically and socially straitened years on either side of WWII.

Vera Hillyard, summed up as an ‘unreasonable carping scold’ is very much a creature of these times. Make-do-and-mend, admire those further up the ladder and despise those lower down, and mind your own business. Plus, illogical and as shirty as hell:

You didn’t know the biscuits were home-made? My goodness, but Grandma would turn in her grave! I can see we were wasting our time making biscuits for you. Might as well have gone down to the grocer’s and bought any old packet of Maries. I wonder what Eden would say to that. I don’t suppose she’s tasted a shop-bought biscuit in all her life. Well I hope our humble, home-made stuff will suit you, I’m sure I do. We’re not up to these sophisticated London ways and I can’t see us changing now.

Vera’s younger sister Edith – Eden – represents the other side of the coin. French make-up, Veronica Lake hair-do, Americans and boyfriends. They’re as weird as each other, though, especially when they begin to grow apart. If you like Megan Abbott, there’s a similar vibe. Women in conflict, with passions bubbling under the surface. Vera shows this more than Eden:

I had seen her busy, bustling, hysterical, panic-stricken, jubilant, triumphant, frustrated, petulant, angry, but I had never seen her happy.

Throw in an unexpected baby, and things get really intense. The finale is an interesting twist on a fair-play mystery: you definitely have all the clues you need to work out what has been going on…

A Dark-Adapted Eye is skilfully assembled, but I noticed the artifice, probably only because I’ve recently read other Rendell novels which employed a similar approach, and because of the narrative voice. ‘Faith Severn’ writes in a naturalistic, chatty (if slightly formal) style. Chapter 2 drops you into a flurry of characters – Francis, Jamie, Patricia, Chad, Helen, Gerald, Tony, Pearmain. It does take a while to piece them all together. There’s a little self-deprecating joke about this later on:

One of the difficult things about my Great Sindon relatives was their way of assuming you knew exactly whom they meant when they referred to someone or other.

However, it seems to me that writing in a character’s voice means that you should tell the story as the character would. At several points I thought: Hang on. No narrator would actually leave that bit of the story out until now, unless they were deliberately holding things back, and why would they do that unless to build suspense?

But still, Rendell can really write. I’d definitely recommend this if you want an immersive read. And chapter one is a belter.


See also: A Judgement in Stone, A Fatal Inversion

Final destination: A keeper


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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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6 Responses to Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye

  1. You’ve really made me want to pick this on up again Rich – very well done mate, cheers.

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  2. Rich – I couldn’t possibly agree with you more about Rendell/Vine’s writing ability. And absolutely this one is a really suspenseful psychological story. A really well-written novel in my opinion. You’ve done an excellent review here too, for which thanks.

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  3. Curtis Evans says:

    Enjoyed the review. It is a triumph of artifice, but also a great take on the mid-century cult of domesticity, I think. This is one of those books that is hard to put down. It’s my favorite Vine, aside from Asta’s Book, I’d be interested to get your take on that.

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  4. Moira says:

    I remember thinking this was great when I read it, but I don’t remember much about it. I might pick it up again. Very helpful review…

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