Barbara Vine,
The Minotaur
(Vintage, 2007)

What's going on in that manor on the hill?

Most mysteries start with a murder, then proceed to uncover who did the deed. In Barbara Vine's The Minotaur, we know almost from the start there's going to be a murder because the story is told in flashback. The question is who the victim will be.

Vine, of course, is a pen name for Ruth Rendell, and I've read a few in her Inspector Wexford series. This is my first Vine and it's clear why she chose a separate identity to pursue stories of a different kind.

The story begins in a slightly comical vein as a young Swedish nurse, Kerstin Kvist, arrives at the old English manor to begin duties caring for the only man in the household, John, who is being treated for what the Cosway family insists is schizophrenia. There's confusion and culture class. Swedish manners are different than English manners. And there's the rest of the family, the imperious mother, Julia, and her four adult daughters -- the lumpish Ida, the silly Ella, the passionate Winifred and the cynical (and extremely rich after becoming a widow) Zorah, who doesn't actually live in the manor, but visits from time to time in her Lotus to sneer at everyone and check up on John.

As we get to know this family and their strained relationships with each other and with the folks in the nearby village who intensely dislike the Cosway Clan, a sense of dread develops and keeps growing. A key plot element emerges -- the manor itself is owned by a trust fund in John's name. Is he kept drugged into a stupor so mom and sisters can protect their place in the manor?

Two of the sisters get entangled in a love triangle. Then, bitterness, recriminations and suspicion. Someone falls -- or was she pushed? -- down a staircase. John's condition ironically begins to improve, much to the distress of Julia.

After the murder and the entrance of police into the story, Vine unveils an elegant series of surprises, right down to the last page, that tie up most, but not quite all, of the mysteries.

The Minotaur is a highly satisfying read. Rendell's precise rendering of character is her strong suit and it is on full display here.

review by
Dave Sturm

29 August 2009

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