Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell

Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell, 1979

Three thousand pounds lay on the desk in front of him. It was in thirty wads, mostly of fivers. He had taken it out of the safe when Joyce went off for lunch and spread it out to look at it, as he had been doing most days lately. He never took out more than three thousand, though there was twice that in the safe, because he had calculated that three thousand would be just the right sum to buy him a year's freedom.

With the kind of breathless excitement many people feel about sex--or so he supposed, he never had himself--he looked at the money and turned it over and handled it. Gently he handled it, and then roughly as if it belonged to him and he had lots more. He put two wads into each of his trouser pockets and walked up and down the little office. He got out his wallet with his own two pounds in it, and put in forty and folded it again and appreciated its new thickness. After that he counted out thirty-five pounds into an imaginary hand and mouthed, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, into an imaginary face, and knew he had gone too far in fantasy with that one as he felt himself blush.

For he didn't intend to steal the money. If three thousand pounds goes missing from a subbranch in which there is only the clerk in charge (by courtesy, the manager) and a girl cashier, and the girl is there and the clerk isn't, the Anglian-Victoria bank will not have far to look for the culprit. Loyalty to the bank didn't stop him taking it, but fear of being found out did. Anyway, he wasn't going to get away or be free, he knew that. He might be only thirty-eight, but his thirty-eight was somehow much older than other people's thirty-eights. It was too old for running away.
--- (pages 1-2)

Alan Groombridge is an unhappy man. Trapped in a loveless marriage, with two unpleasant children and a tiresome father-in-law, his only escape is reading literature and poetry, and fingering money. As manager of a small rural bank, he has plenty of opportunity to fantasize about stealing the cash and leaving his stifling life behind. When two naive young men stage an ill-conceived bank robbery, Alan gets his chance to take the money and run. But between his own inexperience and the haunting specter of his abducted teller, Alan will be hard-pressed to make a clean getaway.

Make Death Love Me starts with this simple, Hitchcockian premise and then follows it through to its dark conclusion, twining together the double stories of Alan's exodus and of the robbers' pathetic attempts to rectify their mistake. Like one of John D. MacDonald's standalone pulp crime novels, Death is a fast, intense journey of black comedy and suspense.

The novel is crisp and engagingly readable, but the killer premise is probably the best thing about it. Rendell is an accomplished writer (her deliciously cruel skewering of middle-class hell that opens the book is terrific); it's her plotting that lacks vitality. The book's middle segments are a little saggy, which is surprising for a novel that's barely two hundred pages. Not a whole lot happens between the beginning and the blood-soaked ending, just a slow increase in pressure. There's nothing especially wrong with this approach, but it's been done many times before, and better. The storyline doesn't really twist or turn, it just ratchets up the tension.

Both of the stories have potential to be excellent, but neither of them quite make that leap. Alan's rediscovery of life and his torrid romance with his new landlady are good, just not especially memorable or compelling. Likewise, the twisted kidnappers/captive dynamic, while well-written and suitably dramatic, has been done many times, and Rendell's use of the scenario doesn't bring anything much new to the table.

Rendell has a reputation for psychological insight and sharp characterizations, both of which are definitely in evidence here. She brings a dark, chilling pscyhosexuality to Nigel, the main villain, and she nicely captures Alan's unusual predicament and the emotions driving him. I can't say that the characters are especially riveting, but they're all economically drawn and intriguingly amoral to some degree. Joyce, the kidnapped teller, is perhaps a little too dumb to be sympathetic, which hurts her side of the story a bit.

It's the nasty, cruel closing chapters where Rendell hits the gas and exposes the darkly comic underbelly of the tale. The book ends not in triumph, as most thrillers do, but in a vicious, senseless bloodbath that metes out harsh, Flannery O'Connor-style justice. Nigel's fate is a little random for my taste, but you can't deny the dramatic resonance of Alan facing the consequences of his actions down the barrel of a gun. It's a suitably dark finish to a dark, funny little tale of amorality and the difficulties of dealing with the aftermath of our choices.

NEXT UP: Robert Jordan's third Wheel of Time novel.

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