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Book Review: The House of Stairs by (Ruth Rendell writing as) Barbara Vine


Drew Payne

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It was no secret that Ruth Rendell also wrote as Barbara Vine. Writing under this pseudonym, she created many gripping psychological thrillers. They are not so much who-did-it as how-they-did-it or why-they-did-it. The House of Stairs is the best example of this.

The book opens with a chance meeting between the narrator and Bell, a woman she hasn't seen in over twenty years because Bell has been in prison for murder. The story slips back and forth in time between the 1980s, as the women begin to reforge their relationship, and the 1960s when the events that lead to Bell becoming a killer unfold. The setting is London and Vine/Rendell paints such a vivid picture of 1960s Notting Hill that you can almost taste the counterculture and see people dropping out.

The title comes from the Notting Hill house, owned by the flamboyant and eccentric widow Cosette, around which the 1960s section revolves. It’s a tall, narrow house where it seems every room has someone different in it. The house appears as just as strong a character as any of the people who pass through it.

The suspense here does not come from wondering who the killer is; we are told almost from the beginning that it is Bell. But rather from the question, “Who is she going to kill?” This also gives the novel a sense of doom as we wait for the inevitable death but don’t know when it is coming or who it will be. The suspense builds as the twists and turns of the complicated relationships between the characters unfold.

The characters, with all their faults, failings, and needs, are all too human. They are not mere devices to keep the plot flowing; it is the reverse; the plot comes from them, with their human foibles and shortcomings driving it forward. The main Vine/Rendell take on human relationships is present here; all are equally dysfunctional. From the friendship between the two central women that turns into a secret lesbian affair, to the siblings who appear strangely too close, to the older woman and younger man who may or may not have found true love together.

The tale is dark, sinister, repressed, and doom-laden, but also page-turning. The House of Stairs is one of the best Vine/Rendell creations, and, like the best of her work, it is not only a thriller; it is also a contained novel. It paints a picture of 1960s Notting Hill that feels all too real, especially to someone too young to remember it. At the heart of it is a repressed and secret lesbian affair that drives along so many of the events, but that is also one of the most important relationships in at least one of the women's lives. Some people say Rendell’s view of gay and lesbian relationships was homophobic, but I find that she treated all relationships the same and had a cynical view of all of them.

For me, I wanted this novel to never end, so involved was I with the characters and their spiralling downward journey, but I also desired to know what was going to happen next, and that pushed me onwards. This is truly a page-turning novel.

The House of Stairs.jpg

Edited by Drew Payne
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This is a really good review of what sounds to be an interesting book.

I do read English Lit, but usually books with male or trans-male protagonists. I do love mystery and thrillers, so I'll investigate it a little more to see if it worth reading.

It is available on Audible for anyone interested, though it is an 11 hour book so be warned to have plenty of time set aside:

https://www.audible.com/pd/The-House-of-Stairs-Audiobook/B00BR4CCEK?qid=1633159027&sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=WWW2187TRVBT3VJPR1NW

 

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7 hours ago, W_L said:

This is a really good review of what sounds to be an interesting book.

I do read English Lit, but usually books with male or trans-male protagonists. I do love mystery and thrillers, so I'll investigate it a little more to see if it worth reading.

It is available on Audible for anyone interested, though it is an 11 hour book so be warned to have plenty of time set aside:

https://www.audible.com/pd/The-House-of-Stairs-Audiobook/B00BR4CCEK?qid=1633159027&sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=WWW2187TRVBT3VJPR1NW

 

Thanks so much.

I am a very eclectic reader, especially since I got a Kindle.

I am working my way through the books I've read and writing reviews of the best ones, which I will post here. I hope they'll introduce people to some new books/authors.

I have always enjoyed Ruth Rendell's books; her plots are so driven by her characters and the often bad choices they make. For many years, I lived in Ladbroke Grove, the part of London this book is set in, though the area had changed so much since when this novel was set.

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1 hour ago, Drew Payne said:

Thanks so much.

I am a very eclectic reader, especially since I got a Kindle.

I am working my way through the books I've read and writing reviews of the best ones, which I will post here. I hope they'll introduce people to some new books/authors.

I have always enjoyed Ruth Rendell's books; her plots are so driven by her characters and the often bad choices they make. For many years, I lived in Ladbroke Grove, the part of London this book is set in, though the area had changed so much since when this novel was set.

I'm similar in that respect, I love reading and feel like there's a whole world out there of books that should be shared with others, so they know there's authors with similar interests. My taste are eclectic, too.

Have you ever read Joseph Hansen's Mysteries, Dave Brandstetter series. It's an interesting read if you like a classic detective story with investigations based on clues and witnesses. The protagonist Dave was the first openly gay investigators that I've read in a mystery novel. I knew insurance claims investigations were complicate by intricately linked crimes, human emotions, and death, but it's fun to read a character I can sort of relate to.

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3 hours ago, W_L said:

Have you ever read Joseph Hansen's Mysteries, Dave Brandstetter series. It's an interesting read if you like a classic detective story with investigations based on clues and witnesses. The protagonist Dave was the first openly gay investigators that I've read in a mystery novel. I knew insurance claims investigations were complicate by intricately linked crimes, human emotions, and death, but it's fun to read a character I can sort of relate to.

I read the whole Dave Brandstetter series of novels in my twenties and I loved them. They were the best things Joseph Hansen wrote and they were damn good mysteries. He wrote them in the style of the classic PI novel, expect Brandstetter wasn't a PI, was very happily gay and had a life outside of his work (I was so jealous of his wonderful house). They were such a breath of fresh air to me back then. In my twenties I read anything I could find with a gay protagonist, and I read so much shit. Novels like the Dave Brandsetter series stand out, in my memory, like a shinning jewels. I must go back and re-read them. Thanks for reminding me of them.

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8 hours ago, Drew Payne said:

I read the whole Dave Brandstetter series of novels in my twenties and I loved them. They were the best things Joseph Hansen wrote and they were damn good mysteries. He wrote them in the style of the classic PI novel, expect Brandstetter wasn't a PI, was very happily gay and had a life outside of his work (I was so jealous of his wonderful house). They were such a breath of fresh air to me back then. In my twenties I read anything I could find with a gay protagonist, and I read so much shit. Novels like the Dave Brandsetter series stand out, in my memory, like a shinning jewels. I must go back and re-read them. Thanks for reminding me of them.

No problem, I am planning on reviewing them later next year in my book reviews of mainstream gay fiction. I agree with you, they're worth reading.

If you want to review them first be my guest. I only have Book 1 Fadeout to Book 5 Skinflick read so far, it will be a while until I get to Book 6-12

I also still indulge in what amounts to trashy gay novels, they're too sexy for their own good :P

Edited by W_L
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19 hours ago, W_L said:

No problem, I am planning on reviewing them later next year in my book reviews of mainstream gay fiction. I agree with you, they're worth reading.

If you want to review them first be my guest. I only have Book 1 Fadeout to Book 5 Skinflick read so far, it will be a while until I get to Book 6-12

I also still indulge in what amounts to trashy gay novels, they're too sexy for their own good :P

Thanks for reminding me about the Dave Branstetter novels. I don't think I'll review them but I will write a blog about reading them, they were so important to me at a difficult time in my life. It would be a great way to write about the importance reading and good novels. I want this blog to be more than just how I write, hence the book reviews and essays.

I self-published earlier this year and trying to promote it has been such hard work. I started writing book reviews to try and raise my profile on Goodreads, but I decided to use them here too. They add a bit of verity here too. Maybe I should review some of awful books too. Who doesn't love a bit of trash, now and again?

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