Monday, December 30, 2013

The Rottweiler - Ruth Rendell

A serial killer is on the loose in London, apparently leaving his victims with a bite mark (hence the nickname 'The Rottweiler') and taking a personal item of the victim. But this is not the whole truth as the bite mark is a kind of urban legend with only the first victim having it (and that too by her boyfriend). But as the media doesn't usually care for niceties such as the truth and is more concerned with the level of sensation a news can create, it continues referring to the killer as 'The Rottweiler'. Starting off with this conceit, Ruth Rendell tries to give a different spin to the 'serial killer' genre.
 Inez Ferry, a widow owns an apartment, rents out the its top floors while running an antique shop in the ground floor. The identity of the killer is revealed early on the novel and the focus is more on why the killer does what he does. Here Rendell  tries to demystify the 'serial killer' as we get to know more about the killer (told from the perspective of the killer itself). This is a very good ploy as we see/hear the killer himself as he tells us about his past, his (unclear/unsure to himself) motivations that led him to down this path, his current state of mind,  his narration a curious mix of emotions and clinical coldheartedness. At some points he is a lab technician observing himself microscopically like a specimen and at others he is a tortured soul, wanting to break free from the desire that drives him but also knowing that to stop would be near impossible and would indeed mean his death. 

The novel also follows Inez and the motley group of characters like 'Zeinab' who works in her shop and the tenants of her apartment. Each one has a story of his/her own and Rendell devotes sufficient time to each. The recurring theme between all these people and the killer too is that all of them are leading multiple lives, taking care to present only one side to others. Here 'multiple lives' doesn't always mean that each one of is a killer or harbors evil thoughts, but that most of them have something to hide. It may be something which may seem as innocuous as watching one's dead husband's videos again and again or it could be a case of identity deceit. It could also be a case of huge compassion towards one's orphaned nephew, but why does it seem to conceal something else? Rendell doesn't explain these to us outright, letting the revelations come from the character's themselves as they reach a point of no return. The novel is reach in atmosphere and one can visualize without any effort the sights and sounds of  'Lisson Grove', the locality where the novel is set. 

What lets the novel down is the sense of 'Déjà vu' that strikes after about the half-way mark and due to which one can predict what is going to happen. Granted that the killer is known very early and the focus of the novel is not just his capture or the thrill it offers, but once the characters have been established, their unraveling seems too cliched. The various threads like Becky and her nephew, Inez, Zeinaab and even the killer all go down a path which has already been traveled by the reader. all It's not that the reader is ahead of the author here, but the author has descended to a level where the reader not just keeps pace with her but by the end outraces her. 

'The Rottweiler' reads like a novel of 2 halves, highly satisfying/intriguing  in the first when the characters are established, with a sense of unease and vagueness hovering over them(with the readers feeling the same and expecting more in the remaining part). The second half is one with a no frills, straightforward tying up of all the threads which can be easily guessed by us. It may be a result of Rendell trying to keep things as grounded as as she can, but the result is slightly disappointing read on the whole. But Rendell deserves our appreciation for trying to demystify the 'serial killer'.