When a new Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell mystery is released, her fans celebrate. Vine is Rendell’s alter ego, and in that incarnation her books are a bit edgier, a little more grisly, somewhat sexier and often more political. Such is the case with THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT, a highly suspenseful cautionary tale, mixing murder, morality and politics. Vine is a life peer on the Labor side, who uses her knowledge of and experience in Parliament to tell the story of Ivor Tesham, who sits on the Conservative side. The narrative is imbued with a sense of fear and doom as IRA bombings, the Gulf War and corrupt politicians are very real threats that have invaded and overshadow England.
In addition to the threats that shatter the nerves of the populace, the time frame plays out after Margaret Thatcher’s defeat in 1992, when John Major became Prime Minister and was re-elected in 1997. The narrator is an “insider” who knows many secrets and tells readers that, because politics bores him, he “shall gloss over a great deal of this aspect of Ivor's life…touching on what [he thinks is] interesting.” He goes on to say that Jane Atherton’s diary is a history of both Ivor and Hebe, his married mistress, and shall be his guide.
Ivor is a 33-year-old elitist bachelor whose snobbery is legion, but is not above slinking around in a “kinky” affair with a married woman. He has money, savoir-faire and sees the world as his to embrace with an insatiable sense of entitlement. He is a conniver and a fast-thinking, self-serving “swinger” whose life comes apart because he went one step too far.
But the power brokers like Ivor, who will do anything from taking kickbacks to stuffing ballot boxes, are going to have a rude awakening when they hear John Major’s new Parliamentary rules. Any form of sleaze or wrongdoing is permanently banned from the domains of the members. So, of course, the “dirt” goes underground.
The other major character in this superb novel is Jane Atherton, who kept the diary. She is a plain woman who leads a very simple life and watches as her “friend” Hebe runs around with her paramour (Jane is her alibi resource), her husband, her baby (for whom Jane is the babysitter) and her other “businesses.” For Jane, Hebe lives in a parallel universe --- one of society and clothes and cars and motherhood and the intrigue of affairs. In truth, Jane is very envious, and as time moves on she becomes more and more angry and bitter. As she looks back, she begins to feel used, betrayed and “rage at the Gods” for her tiny space in the world.
The architecture of the book is shaped around a surprise birthday present for Hebe. Ivor and some friends think up a plan to “kidnap” her for “adventurous sex,” the latest fad among a certain element of society. But as is the case with the “best laid plans,” the joke ends up in catastrophe and death. At first, Iris, her husband and the men hired for the gig are the only ones who know the real story. Then, after the catastrophic events of that night, the personalities of the characters start to change and their dark sides emerge. Two people are dead and one remains in the hospital languishing between life and death.
As events unfold and time passes, the actors who took part in the false kidnapping of Hebe cross paths in one way or another. Blackmail, threatened lives, tragic disabling of two characters and death are the primary reasons for meetings to take place. A string of pearls becomes a focal point and provokes a confrontation as does articles used in kinky sadomasochistic sex. Jane is enthralled by all of it. But her connection to Ivor is a dangerous one, and in her naïveté and lack of worldliness she is foiled at every turn.
Clues are generously sprinkled among the red herrings for readers who enjoy keeping track of such things. They will find themselves wholly satisfied. Vine weaves a powerful story of the fall from grace of a man who lived without thought for anyone but himself and who “carries within him all the hypocrisy, greed and self-obsession of a troubled era.” THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT is a slight departure from the usual Barbara Vine psychological thrillers. It is a testament to her flexibility and skill in putting together such a heady book that is also accessible to readers.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 11, 2011