Rendell did not hide in the shadows about Barbara Vine. I was merely sweet sixteen when I clapped eyes on a new paperback which started with ‘Ruth Rendell writing as…’ in WH Smith in Ilford. With my Saturday job money, (which wasn’t much so buying hardbacks was not an option back in 1987), this book was in my hot little hand and I was over to the cashier within a minute. I couldn’t wait to get home and start it.
And what a revelation! I had been enjoying Rendell’s books for a few years by then and here was something different. I was no longer in Rendell territory. This was a completely new landscape, terrain that was very dark and creepy. This was Rendell showing she had read, she had listened, she had observed, she had written and she had learnt her craft – and Barbara Vine was Ruth Rendell… but this was her darker other half! As we were to discover over her subsequent Vine novels, Rendell would often revisit the theme of the past crashing in to the present, of those with sin being found out, even if after decades of hiding in the shadows.
The crime of ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ is not a whodunit, as we know all too well from the first page that Vera Hillyard was hanged. What Vine doesn’t tell us is who the victim was? What were the circumstances that turned straight-laced Vera Hillyard, who prided herself on her cooking and sewing, to turn to murder? With great subtlety, Rendell/Vine slowly and carefully peels back the layers of obsession and possession that culminate in such a violent act. It is due to Vine’s poetic prose, the way she unwraps her Pandora’s Box that shows how great a writer Rendell was. She proved time and again that crime fiction needn’t be the poor relation, was no longer a genre to be ridiculed and could be classed as literature. With ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’, she did just that.
This is why I feel that ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ should be classed as one of those milestones, another standout novel that still stands head and shoulders above an ocean of books that have arrived after it. Some have tried to imitate Vine, but she was there first. It is interesting that with the current phenomenon of ‘Domestic Noir’, this book is not held up as a worthy predecessor of this sub-genre. You read anything in that vein from today’s authors and then read ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ and you will see that Rendell/Vine was on to it by a good thirty years!
It does feel weird that a new edition has come out to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary – which does make one feel a little old! Here, Val McDermid has written an introduction for this new edition of ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’. Thankfully, like me, Val discovered this book in 1987 – so I wasn’t the only one around then not able to pay full whack for a hardback (Shock horror! No Amazon discount back then!)