‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine opens with the death of Vera Hillyard, one of the last women to be hanged for murder in Britain in the late 1940s. The story is told from the point of view of Vera’s niece, Faith, who was in her early teens during the Second World War when the main events and crime in question take place. Some thirty years later, Faith is approached by a journalist called Daniel Stewart who is researching the case for a book he is writing and she slowly unravels her version of events as well as a number of family secrets.
Published to wide critical acclaim in 1986, ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ is the first of Ruth Rendell’s novels written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, taken from her middle name and her great-grandmother’s maiden name. Set primarily during the Second World War, the quietly creepy and sinister tone of the story and descriptive, literary style of writing reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s work. There is quite a lot of family history to take in at the beginning with a large cast of characters but the main story is centred around Vera and her relationship with her much younger sister Eden. Faith is sent to live with her two aunts and Vera’s young son Francis in north Essex to escape the bombing raids in London. Yet there is bitter sibling rivalry between Vera and Eden and the atmosphere soon becomes unbearably suffocating.
Rendell’s Barbara Vine novels are considered to be in the vein of psychological suspense mysteries compared with the more traditional detective crime fiction written under her real name. As the identity of the murderer is revealed from the very beginning, ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ is more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit but it is every bit as intriguing. Without wanting to give too much away, the ending isn’t neatly tied up even when the identity of the victim is finally revealed. Vine very cleverly lets the reader think that the main mystery has been at least partially explained but raises further doubts and questions again in the final pages. It’s a bold ending and it’s one that works very well.
Quietly chilling and curiously ambiguous, ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ is a must-read for fans of psychological mysteries and classic crime fiction. Highly recommended.