Published in 1986, A Dark-Adapted Eye was the first novel legendary crime writer Ruth Rendell wrote under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. The name comes from her middle name and her great-grandmother’s maiden name. In interviews, Rendell said that she wanted to differentiate these novels from her other work. They would explore the psychological motives behind crime in greater depth, particularly the secrets among families.
In the introduction to a new edition, Val McDermid calls this the novel that changed the thriller landscape. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a whydunit, its structure unconventional, even among novels of psychological suspense. A compelling, enigmatic mystery that explores an old crime and a deadly accurate study of British mores in the mid-twentieth century.
The opening chapter is a master-class in fine writing. We know from the first paragraph that the narrator’s aunt is being hanged that morning. The reader is immersed in the tiny details of a home in the early 1950s as the clock ticks inexorably towards eight – the time at which British judicial hangings took place.
The layers of a rich and complex plot begin peeling back and it takes much of the novel to know who was murdered. (Or rather, that was clearly Ruth Rendell’s intention but I note new editions give away too much on the jacket copy). Readers were meant to surmise, even be fairly sure though not entirely so.
Faith Severn is contacted by a biographer who is writing a book about her aunt Vera Hillyard. This sets her on a quest of remembering, over a third of a century later, the childhood visits she made to the cottage in rural Essex. Home of her two devoted aunts, over-thin, nervy, scolding Vera and Eden, fifteen years her junior. Eden, only six years older than Faith, lovely to look at and domestically accomplished, became the young Faith’s role model.
The narrative deftly weaves between past and present as Faith reexamines her memories through adult eyes in an attempt to work out what was really going on. Her insights take us beneath the surface of a conventional English family through the War and into the early 1950s. A life of rationing and thriftiness, when respectability and conformity meant everything. No one ‘washed their dirty linen in public’, keeping up appearances mattered and few suspected what went on behind the starched net curtains. Ruth Rendell was superb at evoking that time, still within living memory, but a vanished way of life.
It seems to be hard for some people today to relate to how vastly attitudes have changed in Britain since the mid-twentieth century. Based on reviews I’ve seen, some readers view the plots of vintage detective fiction with today’s liberal attitudes and can’t understand how the strait-jacket of convention affected people’s lives.
The social history is part of my love for vintage crime novels and one reason I write historical detective fiction. I’m fascinated by a long-gone Britain with its plethora of motives for murder which no longer apply. Novels – perhaps especially crime stories – are as important as non-fiction at recording social history.
The narrative of A Dark-Adapted Eye is brilliantly constructed, often cryptic, gradually filling in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. The story makes the reader question the nature of memory and interpretation. Memory itself is an unreliable narrator and can our understanding of events only ever be partial?
This is a novel on a slow fuse – which won’t appeal to everyone. Throughout a slow build-up, there’s a feeling of claustrophobic tension as Faith’s recall nears the crime. The characterisation is masterly and the ending ambivalent. Two alternatives are set out, almost as they would be in a courtroom and the reader is left to decide. Frustrating to readers who want a clear feeling of closure but much more true to life. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a novel for grown-ups and one that lingers in the mind.
I’ll leave the last word to another legendary crime novelist and old friend of Ruth Rendell. Couldn’t agree more.
This is a rich, complex and beautifully crafted novel, which combines excitement with psychological subtlety. I salute a deeply satisfying achievement – P.D. James