A wonderful era ended for Ruth Rendell fans on May 2, 2015 when the author died as the result of a stroke she suffered a few days earlier. Rendell produced mysteries under her real name and under the pen name Barbara Vine so regularly, for so many years, that it is still hard for fans to realize that there will be no more. Dark Corners, published about six months after her death, is the last of them.
As the story opens, Carl Martin is a writer with one published work to his name, but that novel, Death’s Door, had not exactly made him a rich man. Carl is living in a house recently inherited from his father, and because he has no source of income other than his writing, he decides to take on a border. Luckily for Carl, because the house is in one of London’s trendier neighborhoods, he easily locates a border willing to pay him 1200 pounds per month for the three upstairs rooms. That, though, would turn out to be a huge mistake, one Carl will regret for the rest of his life.
Along with the house, Carl inherited its contents, among them his father’s vast collection of homeopathic “medicines” and cure-alls – including a stash of diet pills that are as likely to kill the person taking them as they are to help her shed a few unwanted pounds. Unfortunately for Carl (and especially for his friend Stacey), that is exactly what happens when he lets Stacey talk him into selling her fifty of the pills. Carl’s border recognizes a good blackmail opportunity when he sees one, and after Stacey’s body is discovered, he begins to “reverse blackmail” Carl by refusing to pay his monthly rent.
In a side plot (which will tellingly crash into Carl’s world soon enough), a one-time friend of the dead Stacey’s has taken to living in Stacey’s apartment where she will remain until being forced out by the dead woman’s family. In her trademark fashion, Rendell explores deeply both the backgrounds of her characters and what is going on inside their heads. She wants her readers to understand why her characters do the things they do, but seldom has an entire cast of her characters been as flawed as the one in Dark Corners. Victims and criminals are, in fact, so much alike that the reader is hard pressed to find one to root for in this tale of blackmail, murder, and unintended consequences.
Dark Corners is not destined to become my favorite Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novel. Nor is it, in my estimation, one of her better books, but because it is her last it will always have a place somewhere on my shelves and in my memory.