'The Birthday Present' by Barbara Vine

Sordid tale combines sex, dark humor

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It's London, May 1990. There's Margaret Thatcher, the first Gulf War, the Bosnian crisis and the IRA to contend with.

Handsome, rich Ivor Tesham, 33, "the quintessential English gentleman," a Conservative member of Parliament on the rise, has everything going for him, except some kinky sexual proclivities, which he's managed to keep out of the public eye.

"The Birthday Present"

By Barbara Vine
Shane Arehart Books ($25)

This all sets off the imagination of Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell's pen name) for one of her best literary excursions. Ivor is having an affair with a gorgeous blonde named Hebe Furnal, married to a dull man and encumbered with a young child.=

Their clandestine encounters are not missionary position rolls in the hay. The tabloids refer to it as "adventure sex."

Her close friends include unglamorous Jane Atherton, who will corroborate her alibis, should Gerry Furnal ask.

In advance of Hebe's birthday, Ivor has given her an expensive pearl necklace, but for a real fun time Ivor has arranged her phony kidnapping. The idea is to get her in the mood for more kinky sex games at an empty house.

But things don't go as planned. The kidnappers' car crashes and Hebe is killed, along with an actor playing her assailant. The driver is hospitalized in a coma.

The crash sets of a chain of events, as usual in a Vine/Rendell story, that branches off in the most unexpected directions. It also introduces characters who act in ways other than we might expect from our first encounters, a special gift of this author.

The narrative is divided between a first-person account by Ivor's brother-in-law, Robin Delgado, a prosaic accountant unwillingly drawn into the story; and the diary of the alibi lady, a psychotic personality whose mental illness worsens as the story progresses.

It's a nasty story, told with wry black humor, and an ending that's both happy and sad -- and only marginally moralistic.


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