Something very unusual happened in my book group this past week: almost no one finished the book. Despite the fact that we meet every week to discuss a different book, it is actually rather rare that fewer than half of the attendees have not made it to the end; this was our seventh meeting of 2016, and it was the first time I hadn’t finished the assigned title. (According to my Kindle, I stopped at 30%.)
What was it about this book—Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell, an author many of us have enjoyed—that made it so difficult? For me personally, it was the book’s structure, featuring two seemingly unrelated storylines told via alternating chapters. One was about a group of schoolboys who pretend to be spies, complete with code names and secret drops. The other is about a sad-sack, middle-aged man named John who works at a gardening center (named Trowbridge’s!). John’s sister was murdered many years ago, and her killer was never found. In addition, his wife wants a divorce so she can marry an old lover who’s recently come back into her life; John does not want to dissolve the marriage, convinced she’ll eventually realize that she’s making a mistake.
I was more intrigued by the storyline involving John, which seemed like it might develop into a conventional mystery, but the two threads do come together early on, as John finds one of the boys’ encoded messages and attempts to decipher it. (He assumes that it must be the work of a mafia of some sort, never suspecting that it’s just a group of youngsters playing around.) For a few nights, I tried reading the book before bedtime, and the spy chapters would put me right to sleep. I was sure I’d just give up on it, but then the few people in my book group who had read the entire thing urged the rest of us to persevere, and took the rare step of not discussing the ending so as not to spoil it. (As a rule, if you come to group without having read the book, you’re not allowed to complain about spoilers.)
So I went home and finished the remaining 70% of the book, and while I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, I do think Rendell did a fine job of bringing all of the storylines together in a satisfying way. It’s a cleverly plotted book. Even the smallest details, such as John’s co-worker’s infatuation with a mynah bird, pay off down the line.
I do believe I would have enjoyed it more if I’d not been reading it on a Kindle; it’s so cumbersome to flip back and forth in an ebook that I seldom do it, whereas with a paper book, I often find myself skimming earlier chapters to remind myself who’s who. In a book like this one, where half the characters are known by their real names and code names (OK, which one’s Leviathan again…?), that would have made it easier to keep track of everyone.
One member of our group—the one who recommended Talking to Strange Men in the first place—said she once asked Rendell to sign her copy of the book, and the author mentioned that not many people cared for it. So it sounds like she was well aware it wasn’t one of her most beloved titles. Of course, Rendell was a prolific author with over 50 novels to her credit, many of them truly great; Talking to Strange Men is well-constructed, but it’s hardly one of her best.