thebirthdaypresentbarbara52283_fOver the years I’ve come to prefer Barabara Vine to Ruth Rendell (for they are one and the same). Although I used to read the Wexford novels voraciously, I really rate the psychological approach that she takes as Vine, and The Birthday Present  maintains what is a pretty good record (the only one I couldn’t get into was Gallowglass).

The book is set in the 1990s when the Conservative government was moving from Mrs Thatcher’s leadership to that of John Major, and the party was struggling with allegations of sleaze. Ivor Trensham is a Tory MP, a single man with ambition and a promising career but who also has secrets – “unconventional” tastes and a mistress, Hebe Furnal, a married woman with a young son. When he organises a special birthday present for Hebe and it goes horribly wrong, leading to a tragic accident, the issue for him becomes one of avoiding scandal; how long before all this gets out, and who will help protect his reputation?

The story is told in the first person by two different narrators; one is Ivor’s brother-in-law in whom he confides over time, and the other is a friend of Hebe’s. I liked the structure of the story which allows the reader to get the full picture in an uncontrived way given that most of the characters (possibly all of them) don’t know all of the facts. I found the atmosphere of imminent ruin for Ivor really pulled me in, and although I had little sympathy for him I still wanted to know what happened. There are lots of hints all the way through but I didn’t really work out what was going to happen until very close to the end, and by then I was so hooked I didn’t really care whether my guesses were correct. I can see myself re-reading this, which isn’t normally the case with crime novels.