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BOOK REVIEW

Vine's latest mystery is a gift

By Ed Siegel
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2009
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If Barbara Vine's characters get any more Gothic, we might have to start calling her Barbara Bronte. One of the two narrators in "The Birthday Present" even compares herself to Charlotte Bronte's Lucy Snowe in "Villette."

Vine has always been slightly more Goth and less genre-bound than Ruth Rendell, the great mystery writer who inhabits the same body. Her primary characters are among the most deliciously obsessive in contemporary fiction, reflecting on their lots in life to the point where gloom often leads to doom.

We won't say whether that's the case with the two main characters in "The Birthday Present." Ivor Tesham has it all, a rising career under British leaders Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the Conservative party, good looks, one beautiful lover after another, no money worries. The second major character, Jane Atherton, has next to nothing. Her one friend in life is one of Ivor's lovers, Hebe. Ivor and Hebe are given to increasingly kinky sexual games - he decides to have two associates kidnap her and bring her to him as a special bondage birthday present, hence the title.

Hebe uses Jane as the "alibi lady" for her trysts with Ivor, telling her husband she's out with Jane who, we learn from her diary, is both repelled and intrigued by Hebe's living dangerously. When, early on, Hebe is killed in a car accident on the way to the birthday tryst, we wonder whether Jane will put two and two together, with the potential of ruining Ivor's career.

Got that? Don't worry, Vine is nothing if not a clear (though mischievous) storyteller, and so the plot unfolds with her usual clarity and grace. It's a good yarn exceedingly well told.

There is one other person to be aware of: Rob, the main narrator. An accountant, he has a sedate, loving marriage to Ivor's sister, and he looks down on Ivor's sexual adventures. Or does he? He's upset that Ivor doesn't go to the police after Hebe's death, but he's not above rooting for him to get away with it. Maybe he's living vicariously.

Jane certainly is. She grieves that she's a member of "an invisible group, the ignored women . . . who go to bed alone and get up alone." The contrast between her lamentations and Rob's self-satisfied narrative drives the book forward with a mixture of excitement and woefulness.

Vine's a little too subtle with Rob, though, a little too delicate in making his musings come fully alive. The author, at her best, deserves comparison with the best out there, not just crime writers. Here, she explores two of her favorite themes - unintended consequences and the randomness of life. So when you compare the meditations of this book's narrators to Barbara Covett, the narrator in Zoe Heller's "Notes on a Scandal," you wish Vine had made Rob more substantial.

You also wonder what political point, if any, Vine - a Labour House of Lords peer - is up to in making the Tory Ivor such a cad. She obviously knows that liberal men are capable of priggish or piggish behavior, though perhaps there's a suggestion that conservatives have a more Victorian, closeted attitude toward matters sexual.

At any rate, her more obvious wrath is saved for, gulp, journalists, who come across as hideously as in other recent Rendell books. The British press has developed an increasingly vulturine agenda (not that we're so virtuous on this side of the pond), and this book entertainingly takes "feral reporters" to task.

But it's Vine's ability to limn the sexual as well as the material have-and-have-not nature of recent British history that makes the book a tasty morsel for us, if not her characters.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

'The Birthday Present'

THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT By Barbara Vine

Shaye Areheart Books, 323 pp., $25

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