In her newest Barbara Vine novel, Rendell has crafted a subtly sordid tale studded with imaginative plot twists and black humor. Though she reveals Tesham’s eventual downfall within the first few pages, Rendell builds a great deal of tension into her complex, tightly constructed plot, and her descriptions of Tesham’s sexual adventures, though accurate, are never lurid. Interestingly, most British critics panned the novel—a possible reaction to the liberal Rendell’s political leanings or a jaded familiarity with the national events framing the plot. However, American critics praised The Birthday Present, calling it “one of [Rendell’s] best literary excursions” to date (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Readers in search of a smart, fast-paced thriller by an expert storyteller will appreciate Vine’s latest.
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Vine, the pen name of Ruth Rendell (whose Reginald Wexford mysteries are among the best of contemporary British procedurals), turns in another involving stand-alone that explores the twists and turns of human behavior. Flipping between the perspectives of two unacquainted narrators, she chronicles the rise and fall of a self-indulgent British politician, whose career collapses, in part, because of a tragic stroke of bad luck. Ivor Tesham, a rising star in John Major’s liberal party, is shocked when he learns about the death of his mistress, killed in a car accident while on her way to him, bound and blindfolded, as the willing victim of a faux kidnapping meant to set the stage for a birthday gift of adventurous sex. Fearing public censure, Tesham stays quiet, despite the advice from his sister and brother-in-law. As might be expected, his selfish decision gradually ripples outward, leading to unexpected consequences not only for himself but also for the other vicitims of the accident—especially the woman’s troubled friend. As with her other psychological thrillers, Vine writes with calm elegance, slowly unravelling the story while constructing a strong sense of place, politics, and social class to support her players. It’s the very ordinariness of her characters and the randomness of their lives that create the drama here. --Stephanie Zvirin
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