Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.
Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.
The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.
The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.
(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)
Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with a friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bell – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel, we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.
Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four-storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.
We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stairs features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.
The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.
by Suzanne Elliott