Brought Down by Scandal ; in Her Latest Foray into Criminal Psychology Ruth Rendell Wreaks Havoc on the Well-Planned Career of an Ambitious Young Tory MPBOOK OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine(Viking, [pounds]18.99 )

WHAT would it take to make a selfish, posh, lustful and ambitious Tory MP into a nicer man? Ruth Rendell has a pretty good idea.

The Birthday Present is the 13th novel Rendell has published under the name of Barbara Vine (her own middle name and her grandmother's maiden name), beginning with A Dark-Adapted Eye, back in 1986. These novels have always been more complex than those published under her own name, often reaching back a long way into the past to uncover crime and guilt that can never be escaped or expiated. Many of them also use London settings powerfully, exposing the way that completely different worlds co-exist here without meeting and can then wreak havoc when they do intersect.

Rendell observes the harm people do one another with peculiar detachment, seeming not to care about what happens to them. One critic memorably put it thus: "Ruth Rendell writes about people as coolly as a behaviourist observing the effects of fear or pain on laboratory rats." Sometimes the effect of not having to feel too much sympathy for or involvement with her characters is oddly exhilarating and liberating to the reader.

"As flies to wanton boys &" At other times, the sense that none of the characters is actually likeable, or at least certainly not much liked by their author, paralyses one's interest. Rats, flies, who cares? The Birthday Present has two narrators.

One is a decent bore, tangential to the action, who introduces the story; the other a nutty spinster, critical to it, whose awful diary we read.

Rob Delgado, an accountant and devoted father of four, is the loyal brother-in-law of Ivor Tesham MP. Ivor is an Old Etonian barrister, a former president of the Oxford Union, from a well-off Norfolk family with a long track record in politics. At 31, he is elected to a seat often held before by his family and begins to plan his rise in the Conservative Party, surviving the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1992, prospering under John Major, becoming a Minister of State in the Department of Defence.

Ivor is good-looking, confident and, within the limits of his code, a man of honour. He's also highly sexed and a little bit kinky.

His mistress is blonde, long-legged Hebe Furnal, 27, faithlessly married to Gerry, a charity fundraiser, with whom she has a two- year-old son. They live modestly, between West Hendon and Edgware, an area that Ivor dismisses as the "sticks" or sometimes the "boondocks" and has never visited.

Ivor picks up Hebe almost instantly, when she attends a parliamentary reception for her husband's charity. Their sex life involves a lot of "games and dressing up and enactments" and they have phone sex every day, despite Hebe's two-year-old son shouting, "Don't talk, Mummy, don't talk." For her actual trysts with Ivor, Hebe relies on alibis provided by a subservient friend, Jane Atherton, telling her husband they're seeing a movie or having a girlie dinner at Cafe Rouge. …