Author of the Month

Name: Barbara Vine

First Novel: A Dark-adapted Eye

Most Recent Book: The Birthday Present

'The Birthday Present shows that Vine maintains her steely grip on the best-seller list by delivering a powerful story, told by a mistress of the art.'

It is 1990. Margaret Thatcher is soon to be deposed and a new Conservative era is to start under the guidance of John Major. There is political unrest and sleeze seems to be constantly on the front pages of every newspaper. In the thick of all this turmoil is Ivor Tesham, an up and coming rising star with the Conservative government. He appears to have everything going for him. Good looks and wealth - plus the passion and excitement of a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, the woman - Hebe Furnal - is also someone else’s wife.

During their clandestine liaisons, they discover a common ground which excites them both: bondage. The risks they take make their love-making all the more electric. Soon it will be Hebe’s birthday and in line with their mutual understanding, Ivor arranges for her to be ‘kidnapped’. She is to be bound and gagged and brought to Ivor for a very special evening. But it all goes horribly wrong. Soon the untouchable Ivor finds he has to be extremely cunning to maintain his good name and his political career from the prying eyes of the press.

Once again Ruth Rendell dons her Barbara Vine writing persona to offer us a tale of escapism, sadism and more. She illuminates just how the hand of fate can change people’s destiny through a single action and that the scent of scandal can echo down the years. Vine has created in Tesham a character reminiscent of Profumo and the scandal that surrounded him during the sixties. The Birthday Present opens with a young politician in the House of Commons thoroughly enjoying his new role. Then he meets Hebe. This is where things start to unravel. Vine shows how a man with a taste of power can believe he can bend the rules and get away with it.

As in most Barbara Vine novels, the writer gives the reader a lot of what goes wrong very early in the book. After that, you sit back and watch as Tesham’s world slowly unravels - not over a few days or months, but years. Like a Russian Vine the author swiftly and silently takes a stranglehold on Tesham.

Over many years and countless stunning novels Rendell/Vine has brilliantly refined and defined her writing style so that it seems that every word is perfectly honed and brilliantly polished. The Birthday Present cleverly holds up a mirror to the society of the time and is a brilliantly observed social commentary on the events and mores of the period. As with all Vine narratives, the story is told largely in the first person and from the perspective of two people. In this case it is Robert Delgado, Ivor’s brother-in-law, and Jane Atherton’s diary entries. Here are people from total opposites of the spectrum with regards to wealth and social status. Their views of Ivor Tesham are also extremely differing. In a time of political unrest and constant scandals combined with a recession, Vine has given us a moral tale that could be equally apt for today. The Birthday Present shows that Vine maintains her steely grip on the best-seller list by delivering a powerful story, told by a mistress of the art.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) You have been writing consistently since your first book was published in 1964; usually published a book a year, sometimes two. In 2008 alone you have released a second short story omnibus, a Barbara Vine novel and a new Ruth Rendell, Portobello, is due for release in November. When so many other writers have felt their ideas dry up and retired what is it that still inspires you to sit down and start each new book?
I can’t account for my prolificacy and need to keep on writing except to say that I still love writing and see no reason to stop. My ideas don’t dry up and perhaps the best part of writing each new piece or full-length novel is the sitting down and beginning. Readers want to read me, if my postbag is anything to go by. Many ask for my books more than I can or want to write. Why stop when I have the ideas and the impetus to go on?
2) This is your second Barbara Vine book dealing with a politician. Since your elevation to the Lords, do you feel the Houses of Parliament have offered you a fresh source of inspiration for your books?
This is my second Barbara Vine book dealing with a politician. The Houses of Parliament have offered me a fresh source. But I doubt if I shall write any more about politicians, though politics is a different matter. I do try to have different subjects and different themes.
3) All the Barbara Vine books seem to deal with reminiscences of the past - or the past catching up with the present in some way. What makes you return consistently to this theme?
It’s true that all the Vine books deal with reminiscence and with the past catching up with the present. This is one of the things that make the Vines different from the Ruth Rendells. I believe we are our pasts and reverting to the past is unavoidable if we are honest. My characters are made by their pasts and would be different people if they had had different pasts – something that applies to all of us.
4) You chose the early 1990’s as the setting for your new novel, The Birthday Present. This was a time of political unrest and recession. Was there a particular reason for choosing this time period?
I chose the early 1990’s as the setting for my new novel, The Birthday Present, not specially because it was a time of political unrest – political unrest happens all the time and not only then. Choosing it was more a matter of my protagonist, Ivor’s age. I wanted him to be young enough to be fairly young to be an MP and a rising star and 33 seemed a good age. This meant that by the end he was approaching 50 and his settling down would be credible and somehow right. The period I chose had very little to do with the political climate. It might just as well have been early in the Thatcher era but then at the present day Ivor would have been too old for my purposes.
5) You are known as a supporter of the Labour party in the Lords. Was it hard to write about a Conservative politician without appearing too... biased? Do your fellow Lords comment on your stories - or think they recognise themselves?
It isn’t quite accurate to say I am “known as a supporter of the Labour Party in the Lords.” I am a member of the Labour Party and a working peer for the Government. I felt no compulsion to be biased or unfair when writing about Ivor as a Conservative politician, perhaps because his political views, though implicit, are seldom aired in the novel. His behaviour is, of course, conservative with a small c. But that applies to many people irrespective of their political allegiance. He is an old-fashioned landowner with advanced views in other ways, notably sexual. But perhaps that is also in character.
6) The late eighties/early nineties was the time of the ‘Yuppy’. A period when, for some, money was being thrown around and there was abject unemployment elsewhere. Did you deliberately set out to show the stark class differences between the wealthy Ivor and Jane in The Birthday Present?
I wanted to show the class and wealth differences between Ivor and Jane, though it is much more a matter of money than social distinction. But I think this could have been shown at any period of time, now or then or a hundred years ago.
7) Along with P.D. James, you have been christened a modern age ‘Queen of Crime’. Do you find this soubriquet a hard one to live up to or do you merely find it amusing?
I don’t find being called a Queen of Crime hard to live up to or amusing. I find it stupid and it makes me angry. If it had been used of me and P.D.James once or even twenty times I would mind less but it is a cliché which is trotted out whenever anyone writes anything about me or her (or us) and the writers are apparently indifferent to the effect of this stale piece of nonsense on us or our readers. I believe she feels the same but perhaps she is more patient and tolerant than I am. Queen of Crime sounds like a gangster’s girlfriend, maybe a mafiosa.
8) A number of your novels have been dramatised for television. Have you always been happy with the numerous adaptations? Any favourites?
No, of course I haven’t always been happy with the adaptations of my novels for TV. Would any author be? The Wexford series are by far the best and some of them have been very good. Sadly, it has often seemed necessary in these productions to insert a car chase where there is none in the book and the inclusion of one is clumsy. Still, they have been good and continuously watchable as have No Night is Too Long and A Fatal Inversion among the Barbara Vines adapted for BBC2. As to feature films for the cinema, the earliest ones made were awkward and over-sensational. Strangely enough, the French films have been by far the best, the two Chabrols, La Ceremonie and La Demoiselle d’Honneur from A Judgment in Stone and The Bridesmaid, the wonderful Claud Miller, Betty Fisher et Autres Histoires from The Tree of Hands, and the Spanish Pedro Almodovar’s version of Live Flesh.
9) Wexford is clearly a well-loved character with your readers. How do you feel about Wexford after writing him for some years now? How has your relationship with him shifted since he first appeared in From Doon With Death?
I feel much the same about Wexford as I always did. I know him well so I can write about his way of life, his natures, his family and personality without any research or taking much thought. People have asked me if I am in love with him: a stupid concept as he isn’t real and I am. But it’s amazing that a lot of people think he is real - as in the case of the woman who asked me to kill his wife so that she could marry him. I would say I don’t have a relationship with him; he is just a character I invented. But I like writing about him for a change from my other books and when I fetch him out from wherever he lives in my mind, I find it quite pleasant to be chronicling his exploits again.
10) Of all the books you have written, which ones have given you the greatest personal satisfaction?
Of all the books I have written I had great personal satisfaction from The Face of Trespass because I felt (and my publishers and reviewers felt) that this was a breakthrough book, better than and different from those which had gone before, perhaps a new kind of mystery novel, though Patricia Highsmith was already doing this and doing it marvellously. I am very fond of my Talking to Strange Men but it’s not popular among my books. The first Vine, A Dark-adapted Eye pleases me as did the second one, A Fatal Inversion. And I like No Night is Too Long. But I have still to write the book that really satisfies me and maybe now I never shall. But I shall continue to try.