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Kissing the Gunner's Daughter - Ruth Rendell

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Author: Ruth Rendell / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      11.11.2006 14:21
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      Despite everything you have to read on...

      It's well known today that with x-rays we can see beneath the surface of old paintings and find out what previous material existed on the canvas, a "shadow painting", perhaps, or the sketches the artist made, the false starts, the wrong turnings, the people who were painted over, or painted out. In some cases, we can see how the conception of a work has changed in the artist's mind over months or years, giving us a glimpse of the artistic process.

      What is less well known is that something like this exists in literature. The University of Texas, and other rich institutions in America where they teach "creative writing", will pay for the wrong turnings of well-known writers. Roald Dahl, for example, made quite a bit of money from sending to one of these places all the papers he would normally throw in the waste-bin, containing rough drafts and rejected versions of stories he was working on. First thoughts, second thoughts, third thoughts, they want it all. You can cross it out, but please don't throw it away.

      I don't think Ruth Rendell will have earned much from Kissing the Gunner's Daughter in that respect, because everything she didn't throw in the bin, which she could have sent to the University of Texas, she has given free to the reader instead. The opening scene of the story provides rich pickings for the literary archaeologist. A policeman is shot by a bank-robber; two guns are sent spinning across the floor, and one of them disappears in the confusion – unless it was only one gun that was dropped, in which case nothing disappeared. No one is sure if the witness really saw what she saw, because later she changes her mind. Well, I won't bother to sort it out for you, and I don't think it will spoil your enjoyment to know that it makes no difference. Because the gun that later turns up in another crime is not definitely – only might be – the gun (or one of the guns, if there were two) used at the bank robbery. And if it wasn't, the bank robbery is irrelevant and has no connection to the main plot except to waste everyone's time. But, to tell you the truth, a lot of time is wasted even if the gun is the same.

      While it's interesting to see Rendell playing with ideas, trying to decide which way the story should go, I don't feel these "shadow paintings" should be presented to the reader. The reason that this paperback edition is 410 pages long is that a lot of it should have gone to Texas, even if her publisher's editor had to be the one to cut it out and send it. There is so much in this book that looks like improvised story-telling, and might even be two or three different stories glued together. This is Rendell at her worst, and it's quite frustrating.

      But the crime for Inspector Wexford to investigate (not the bank robbery) is an attention-grabber, one must admit, and the detailed description might delay your next meal for several hours. Three members of a family are shot dead at the dinner table by intruders in a country house on a large estate, and a fourth, the seventeen-year-old Daisy Flory, is wounded. Now, with mother and grandmother murdered, she will inherit the estate, and has by the end of the book no less than four different suitors (and even Wexford unwisely permits himself to develop tender feelings towards her). Suspicion falls on all of them, as well as on others connected to the family. There are two more deaths before the mystery is solved, one by hanging and one by fire – so plenty of mayhem, described with all the relish that Rendell can muster.

      Meantime Wexford has his own family troubles, in the shape of his daughter, Sheila, who has fallen in love with a Booker-nominated novelist called Augustine Casey. If the name sounds like one you might expect in the early novels of Kingsley Amis, the portrait of Casey only confirms that he belongs there. It's a cartoon portrait of a conceited literary type, who is the least convincing character in the cast. In my view, far too much space in the story is given to this domestic crisis. It's good to know Wexford has a home life, but I don't want too much of that in a murder mystery, and this crisis is a bit of a storm in a teacup.

      But it's worse when it becomes the inspiration for Rendell to find some device for closing up the plot. The steps by which Wexford finds his way to the killer are enough to leave one's credulity in tatters. Suffice it to say that it involves a brochure belonging to Casey which Wexford happens to be using as a bookmark, and which contains a name in an advertisement that is the same as someone else's name that he knows. It's a coincidence, but never mind! – it leads to a transatlantic phone call, which by another fortuitous discovery leads to a second phone call, and...

      "It was about as far-fetched as you could get," says Burden, Wexford's assistant, about one of these inspired steps. And he speaks for the reader, I think. As Rendell, in the person of Wexford, bounces from suspect to suspect, we gradually get the idea that she didn't know herself who was the culprit until the last pages were written. And that's quite possible for any writer in the process of construction, but the task afterwards, when everything is known, is to go back and CLEAN UP! (I'm sorry to shout in capitals. I wanted to shout in italics, but this editor has none.) When you know what the true picture is, remove the "shadow pictures"; we don't want to see them or have to puzzle over them.

      What sums up the many irrelevancies of the story is the title itself. "Kissing the gunner's daughter", a phrase from the Royal Navy in Nelson's time, was the slang name for the ritual punishment of a boy sailor, who would be laid across the barrel of a gun to be caned by the bosun. What relevance has this to the story? Well, there is someone called "Gunner", and he has a "daughter", and it's implied that some "kissing" has been going on. "Kissing the gunner's daughter was therefore a dangerous enterprise," says Wexford at the end, as if he had solved a difficult crossword clue. But a punishment isn't an enterprise, actually. Like so many things in this novel, the title doesn't fit, and is simply forced into place because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

      So, with all this against her, why do we read Rendell? Well, no one except a puzzle addict reads crime thrillers for the plot alone. In that field Rendell has never been amongst the top performers. What we expect from her is what she always gives, which is vivid description. She has an eye for the right detail, as in this image of a thatched house on fire at night:

      "Where it had been, where vestiges of it still were, the blackened roofbeams could be seen through the fierce roaring flames. The house had become a torch but the fire was more alive than a torch flame, animal-like in its greed and determination, its passion to burn and destroy. Sparks spiralled up into the sky, dipping and dancing. A great burning ember, a lump of seething thatch, suddenly blew out of the roof and eddied towards them like a rocket. Wexford ducked and backed away."

      Often with Rendell we are aware of an extra meaning in physical description, a psychological component, and the image of a little rocket of fire attacking Wexford should remind us that in this story he has been playing with fire himself. He is ducking and backing away in another sense, having realized that allowing himself to become emotionally attached to Daisy Flory has affected his judgement. Rendell can do this in some inspired moments, can cross-connect between the physical and the psychological, and this is one thing that raises her writing above the ordinary level.

      We read her because she can do the important things, such as to make us believe in her primary characters, if not always in her secondary ones. In this novel, the character of Daisy Flory is critical to success, if the flaws of the story are to be overcome. She remains for most of the story something of a mystery, but gives us vivid glimpses of a young girl who is both naive and (possibly) manipulative: "She turned on the young man a smile of great candlepower. She took his hand and held it. 'Nicholas is so good to me. Well, you all are. Everyone's so kind. But Nicholas would do anything for me, wouldn't you, Nicholas?'"

      Wexford's troubles with his own daughter lead him to take a paternal attitude to Daisy, but he is aware that her innocence is interrupted occasionally by flashes of ruthlessness. One moment she is pressing her face into the fur of a Persian cat like a little girl, the next moment she is turning with fury on an estate worker and his wife: "I hate you both! I want you out of my house, off my land, I'm going to take your cottage away from you... "

      She is a delicate flower (and both her names, "Daisy" and "Flory", suggest it), but where there are flowers there might be thorns. And what works so well in this story is the way the mystery of Daisy is integrated into the metaphors that inhabit the writing, which are those of contrast between the innocence of natural things – trees, flowers, the ordered beauties of a country estate – and the terrible things that can happen around them. Horticulture is on Rendell's mind all the way through – we even have a character who has "rose-leaf skin" – it's what is called in German a "leitmotif", and some have found it annoying, but to me it contributes strongly to the atmosphere of menace. It's the theme of "the worm in the bud", or the beauty that conceals evil, and she can strike with this weapon in a few powerful sentences:

      "It was sunny in the clearing. The sun lit the hanging body with a gentle golden gleam. Rather than swinging like a pendulum, it rotated to the extent perhaps of a quarter circle as a metal weight might on the end of a plumb line. This was a beautiful place, a sylvan dell with budding branches around and the tiny yellow and white star flowers of spring underfoot."

      So, against that, what can we do? We have to put up with the clumsy things in her plots and just sigh about it. We read her because she's terrific.

      ----

      Publisher: Arrow
      ISBN: 0099249111
      353 pages
      £5.59 from amazon.co.uk

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        08.02.2006 13:29
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        Good storyline and characterisation

        NB: The title of the book is Kissing (not Killing) the Gunner's Daughter - dooyoo have made a mistake here.

        Introduction
        Ruth Rendell is probably one of the most prolific crime fiction authors around. Over the years, I have learned to be wary of her work; generally it is well-written, but she has published the occasional stinker and I do tend to borrow books from the library rather than buy. On the whole though, I usually enjoy the Wexford series – I certainly thought that this book was very good and think it compares well with her other books.

        The author
        Ruth Rendell has written a number of crime fiction novels, starting in 1964 with From Doon With Death, in which she introduced Wexford and Burden for the first time. Rendell has written some 60 books over the years; as well as the Wexford novels, which are police procedurals, she also writes psychological suspense novels, both under the name of Ruth Rendell and under the pen name of Barbara Vine. The Barbara Vine books tend to be more extreme, although some of the books published under her own name tell the story of people with severe psychological problems.

        The plot
        The book begins, somewhat confusingly, with the death of a policeman in a bank robbery. I say confusing, because this actually has little to do with the main story, which is the brutal murder of 3 members of the same family and the wounding of a fourth member, Daisy Flory. Daisy survives, but is able to give the police little help, except to say that two people broke into the house and that the family had heard them upstairs and when Daisy's step-grandfather had gone to check what was happening, he was shot, followed by the shooting of her grandmother and mother. Daisy was shot in the shoulder before the burglars left, but managed to get to the phone and call the police.

        The story stumbles somewhat at this point - it seems to take a long time to get to the point and could have been substantially shortened. The shooting of the policeman at the beginning is drawn back in, because it is discovered that the same gun was used. The last two chapters move along quickly and I think the ending is very good, although again there was some unnecessary bumbling about the identity of one of the perpetrators.

        The characters
        There is a definite advantage to writing a string of stories about the same characters. I love Rendell's portrayal of Wexford and the descriptions of his relationship with his daughters. Burden, Wexford's sidekick, is also portrayed brilliantly in other books, although not so much in this one. I find it hard to warm to some fictional detectives, such as PD James' Adam Dagleish, Ian Rankin's John Rebus and Peter Robinson's Alan Banks, but Wexford is portrayed well as a loving family man with a life outside of the police force rather than a crime fighter with just one purpose.

        Burden is very much in Wexford’s shadows. He is a much quieter man, who is happy to stay in the background. His character has developed over the course of the series – he lost his first wife when his children were still quite young and suffered very much – but he eventually meets and marries another woman. He works well with Wexford, but I would like to see him play a greater role in the series.

        Daisy Flory is also well-portrayed. Her exact role in the book is hard to fathom until near the end, and I don’t want to give the story away by saying why, but the way that her character is drawn out throughout the book adds greatly to the suspense.

        Conclusion
        Once again, a good novel by Ruth Rendell and I would thoroughly recommend anyone to read it. I have already read it three times and will no doubt read it again. The ending, a sign of a good book for me, is really very good and quite a surprise. However, as mentioned above, I do not understand the point of the sub-plot - it really added very little to the main story, and just served to make the book a few chapters longer than was necessary. The middle part of the book moved a little too slowly, again, mainly because of the sub-plot. For those who like fast-moving novels with little time to get to know the characters, this is not for you. Rendell spends a long time developing Wexford's character, which I can imagine may be a little tedious for those not interesting in his family life. For my part though, I think this is one of Rendell's strong points and certainly keeps me reading the Wexford novels as soon as I can get my hands on them.

        The book is available from Amazon for £5.59. It is published by Arrow and has 352 pages. ISBN: 0099249111

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          09.09.2001 04:49
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          How did "kissing the gunners daughter" get to be a bestseller? That is the biggest mystery about this alleged novel. I don't know much about Ruth Rendell's writing, having only read one book of Inspector Wexford short stories which I enjoyed. I was expecting to enjoy this too, knowing that a lot of her stories have been televised, but it was terrible. I managed to trudge my way through the confused writing, which was tedious and repetitive, the scene changing all the time with no warning, dialogues being interrupted with long rambling thoughts of the inspectors which had nothing to do with anything and then resuming when you'd forgotten what they were talking about. The characters, including Wexford, are absolutely two dimensional. It seems that while she can stretch her plot the length of a short story, anything longer than that and she has to pad it out with irrelevant details, missing out important details (such as changes of scene) but including long lists of descriptions of objects, colours and particularly trees, which she wrongly describes as being in a pinetum. Rendell- NO! Pinetum refers to Conifers only, Arboretum is the word you should have used on the thousand irritating occasions you used Pinetum. If you are going to have pedantic characters who shudder at wrong grammar and vocabulary, the least you can do is consult a dictionary! Usually I hate it when people criticise someone elses creative efforts, but this author is selling useless books on the strength of a reputation that the editors have such belief in that it seems they don't bother to proof-read her books, let alone edit them. Sorry Ruth, but this is the kind of thing that could easily be knocked off by a fifth year english student in their summer holidays. A fifth year student in 1953 that is, as I'm sure that's when this police force is dated. Can any detective really be this stupid? My recommendation is, do not read this book. Only a
          really stupid person like me would slog through to the end of this drivel, hoping it would get better. It's rubbish, put it in the dustbin.

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            04.07.2000 23:28

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            Before I review, I will satisfy your curiousity and explain that kissing the Gunner's daughter was not the happy experience it sounds - it was a 18 / 19 century Royal Navy practice of spread-eagling lads deemed too young to be properly flogged over the cannon for a beating! Now read on .... This is a long novel, and while longevity isn't at all a bad quality, Ruth Rendell has proven repeatedly that her tight, densely structured mysteries function best in shorter, more compact versions. Contrast "Kissing the Gunner's Daughter," a massive 380-page novel with earlier Wexfords like "Shake Hands Forever" and "Death Notes," and it's clear why. While certainly above and beyond the average murder mystery, "Kissing the Gunner's Daughter" is a seriously overblown effort, a novel that progresses slowly for the first three quarters and then moves dizzyingly fast in the final quarter. It's hard for the reader to catch interest in the beginning, and even harder to keep track of many of the plot complexities that emerge toward the end. As opposed to her earlier works, stinging little gems that didn't waste a single word, this book is filled with enough descriptions of foliage to turn off a horticulturist!

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