03 February 2009

Review: King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Genre: Thriller, psychological
Year of publication: 1991
Setting & time: London, contemporary

Story:
A group of society’s outsiders rent cheap rooms in an old, mouldering school building. The owner is obsessed with underground railways and is writing a complete history of the London tube. His cousin and her children lead a fairly care-free existence, a young musician falls hard for a young woman who has left her family in order to pursue her dream to become a solo violinist, and another young man worries over his pet hawk, which seems to be dying. When a mysterious stranger arrives in their midst, he sets in motion a chain of events that will change all their lives in one way or another.

Review:
This is one of the best psychological thrillers I have read in a long while. The story moves slowly, occasionally making sudden spurts of action, but even the action is described slowly, almost languidly, so that the tension is magnified with each sentence one moves closer to each narrative climax. The characters weave in and out of each other's lives, each interaction possibly meaningless, possibly not, but often loaded with a sense of foreboding or even menace. The characters come alive on the page, but each is described with indifference by the author, so that the reader can never be certain which characters matter, which ones are merely decorative, and which ones are expendable. The story moves with a sort of inevitability, much like an out-of-control subway train destined for a collision, which is apt because the London tube is very much a character in the book, a magic carpet that takes the characters where they want to go, indifferent as to their fates or whether they ever get to where they are going.
This can't really be called a mystery in the sense that the key events have become foreseeable long before they happen, but the nature of the narrative is such that you are never quite certain that what you have predicted will happen, or if some diabolical twist is waiting just around the corner, which is of course one of the things that make this such a good thriller.

Rating: A very good slow-moving psychological thriller. 4+ stars.

Award:
CWA Gold Dagger, 1991.

This is the second book I finished in the Mystery reader Café challenge: the "on the shelf for at least a year" one.

2 comments:

Dorte H said...

I also like this thriller very much. I have used some chapters about the children who ´train surf´ as a teacher, and my students also enjoyed the horror of this side story.
In my experience most characters are expendable in a real thriller. There is one exception, though, which most writers adhere to: we do not murder children we have come to know.

Bibliophile said...

The train surfing chapters are really heartstopping in places. I actually wondered if Rendell had interviewed train surfers because they were so realistic.