Quick Notes: Ruth Rendell and Mina V. Esguerra

A Guilty Thing Surprised by Ruth Rendell

Despite my fondness for British Golden Age mysteries (Christie, Sayers, Marsh), I have yet to find a more contemporary mystery writer that I really enjoy. To wit, Ruth Rendell is widely regarded as a master of the form, yet this manor mystery about a woman found dead in the woods left me cold (pun not intended). There’s a certain amount of wit that I feel is lacking here, despite erudite nature of the story.

A Guilty Thing Surprised is a novel that features Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden investigating the murder of Elizabeth Nightingale, the mistress of a manor that only seems genteel on the surface. Suspects immediately crop up as a series of interviews reveal the victim’s manipulative nature. The retiring husband, the worldly au pair, and the professor brother–each one has something to hide. The novel’s title is from a Coleridge poem, alluding to a setting that involves many literary and academic preoccupations.

I don’t know why but I found the investigation, which mostly hinges on witness testimony, that I feel is too innocuous and paint-by-numbers. The alibi structure Murder at the Orient Express was utterly engaging for me, but the similar strategy here isn’t successfully executed at all. The final clue to the murderer’s identity is certainly transgressive, but the expository nature of the reveal dampened whatever reaction I may have had about the facts.

I will have to examine my preference for older cozies at a later time, because it’s something that has become more evident as I continue reading mysteries.

No Strings Attached by Mina V. Esguerra

I do enjoy a well-characterized romance novel once in a while, and Mina V. Esguerra’s No Strings Attached is a quick, one-day diversion that offers a lot in terms of intelligent characterization within the short novella form. However, the main quibble I had with the story itself lies in the fact that it is too short.

The story is about Carla, a smart, professional woman who meets an attractive man named Dante during an office party. Sparks fly immediately despite their age difference (isn’t it strange how this is only a concern when the woman is the one older?) but what was supposed to be a casual hook-up turns into something deeper and much more uncertain.

The plot reminded me of How Stella Got Her Groove back by Terry McMillan, which I read when I was in high school. I was initially wary of the premise when I read the book blurb because it implies that despite an enjoyable career and great friends, the one obstacle in Carla’s life is turning 30 without having a boyfriend. This is not how the story plays out at all. I like that the initial affair was very casual and laid back, that there was no moral hand-wringing about having an extended fling. Not that the characters don’t get to angst, but that’s really the nature of a romance though, isn’t it?

My problem is the inevitable final scene. I won’t give away spoilers, but I thought that the conflict that surfaces between Carla and her friends weren’t established convincingly enough in the story, and I wish more wordcount was used on that. What could’ve have been an affecting final scene makes Carla seem uncharacteristically bitter and prone to grudges. This then made the happy ending all the more abrupt and unsatisfying to me.

In romance novels, we all yearn for that heart-pinching scene like Mark Darcy telling Bridget Jones that he likes her just the way she is and getting rebuffed, but that kind of expectation set-up and reversal needs a lot of buildup. I don’t think it was earned here. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the character interaction for the most part. And I particularly enjoyed Dante and Tonio a lot.

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