It’s a bit ironic that the final novel by Ruth Rendell deals with an author in the throes of writers’ block. Rendell, who wrote 66 books (including many under the pseudonym Barbara Vine), never seemed to suffer from that affliction, yet she has no problem getting into the mind of a novelist who is having difficulty completing his second novel. (“Tinkering with it was a waste of time… he could create a new detective, a woman, perhaps. He would begin by making a list of characters, looking up names online and finding new ones in the surname dictionary.”)
The blocked writer is a young man named Carl, and even if the new book is giving him trouble, he should, at least, have a steady source of income: renting a flat in the large home he inherited in London’s affluent Maida Vale neighborhood. Unfortunately for Carl, the tenant he chooses turns out to be a sinister blackmailer who threatens to run to the media and spill the beans about the fact that Carl sold some diet pills to an actress friend of his, who promptly dropped dead after taking them. (The diet pills had been left in the bathroom cupboard when Carl inherited his house.) “It would be a juicy story: ‘Author Kills Actress.’ Carl would never have a serious literary career again.”
Carl didn’t intend to give his friend Stacey a fatal dosage of medication, but even if her death was inadvertent, he doesn’t want to be dragged into a scandal. Meanwhile, there are a few other subplots, one involving another friend of the dead actress, Lizzie, who surreptitiously moves into Stacey’s flat by means of a spare key; Lizzie’s dad, Tom, newly retired with a free pensioner’s bus pass that allows him to begin exploring the city of London; and the evil tenant, Dermot, who begins courting a mousy woman he meets at church. I assumed all of the various threads would somehow come together at the end, but most of them (including one in which Lizzie is kidnapped) just kind of fizzle out. In fact, Dark Corners ends so abruptly that I was honestly shocked when I realized the book was over. I couldn’t help but wonder if Rendell had truly completed the book to her satisfaction before suffering the stroke that ultimately led to her death a few months later.
Rendell does a masterful job of depicting Carl’s mental torture as the situation he is in grows worse and worse, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable thing to read about. I found Dark Corners fairly unpleasant to get through, with not many sympathetic characters. (It’s rather surprising that Carl’s lovely girlfriend, Nicola, sticks around as long as she does.) Unfortunately, this posthumously published book is not one of Rendell’s best, but at least she left us with a huge back catalog of novels far better than this one.