The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

April 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!



  1. I love Ruth Rendell, especially when she’s writing as Barbara Vine. This wasn’t my favorite Vine (A Dark-Adapted Eye is my fave), but even mid-level Vine is better than most psychological suspense novels out there.

    As for her Rendell books, I think they’re closer to being traditional crime novels, and they’re also usually quite good. I tend to avoid her Inspector Wexford books, but I’ve liked the others.

    • I’m glad that I have several other excellent Vine’s ahead of me!

  2. I’m so pleased that you like Barbara Vine! I recommend her to anyone that will listen to me. Vine/Rendell has written so many great books. I really recommend Anna’s Book. And The Blood Doctor. . . I could go on and on. I enjoy the Wexford books also, and the short stories.

    • Anna’s Book is definitely on my to-read-soon list; I just have to find a copy in the US!

  3. I love Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s novels and I’ve read quite a few of them (most of the Vines) and she doesn’t always fit the mystery/crime mold well. I think it is the psychological aspect that puts here there–usually something bad has happened and the story revolves around figuring out why. If you liked this one, some of her older books are even better! I liked The Minotaur a lot. A Dark Adapted Eye is also my favorite but also loved A Fatal Inversion, Anna’s Book and A Judgement in Stone, which is a Rendell novel. Really, almost anything by her is going to be good!

    • I think you’re definitely right–the psychology in her novels really differentiates her. I will be on the lookout for some of the titles you mentioned.

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