The Minotaur by Barbara VineApril 7, 2010
A few weeks ago, during a cold and rainy weekend, I felt like I needed to get out of the house, go somewhere cozy, and start a good mystery. The only problem was that I didn’t have many modern mysteries sitting around the house unread. So I walked across the street to the local bookstore, and with Karen’s recommendations in mind, perused the mystery section until I settled on Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur. I then walked over to a great cafe, ordered a warm sandwich and then basically didn’t put this book down until I finished it a day or so later.
Barbara Vine is one of the pen names of Ruth Rendell, who is considered one of the best modern mystery writers. Before The Minotaur, I hadn’t read anything by her (under either name), so I can’t compare how her Vine books compare with her others. I will say that although this book was published by “Vintage Crime,” I haven’t the slightest idea why this book would really be considered a mystery or even a crime novel. Yes, someone dies. No, that doesn’t make it a mystery. Why this book with a death in it is considered anything other than literary fiction is really the only mystery to me. There are so many “literary” books published every year that are not nearly as well written, have worse character development, and contain fewer psychological insights than this novel does. I would say that The Minotaur is a suspenseful piece of literature that happens to have a murder in it.
With that complaint out of the way, I’m sure that by now most of you can tell that I loved this book. The story centers around a Swedish nurse, Kerstin, who takes a job as a nurse at an old English country house in the 1960s. As time goes by, Kerstin begins to know the family–a mother, three daughters, and a son–and their eccentric ways and relationships. She also learns about the funny little town they live in and the people who live there. The interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t a single bit of coincidence or sleuthing–instead, it’s all about the psychology of what makes people act the way they do. The events of the plot occur not because someone has a crazy motive or because something unexpected happened, they occur because of the natural tensions that arise out of complex and convoluted personal relationships. For that reason, The Minotaur was unlike any other “mystery” book I’ve read, and now I understand why Vine/Rendell is considered a master of suspense. I can’t wait to pick up another one of her books!