Book Title: The Crocodile Bird
Author: Ruth Rendell
Publisher: Crown Publishers Inc; 1993
The genre of crime fiction has evolved from the grungy texture of the Purloined Letter, through the foggy clime of Bakers’ Street, breaking type with the less-than genteel swag of Walter Mosley’s but one common thread has fascinated readers more than another – the curiosity with the power and process of deduction. The other is the power and propensity of man’s mind to conceive and do evil. So, over the din of Marvin Gaye’s “Just like Music,” my little grey cells still thrill from having read Ruth Rendell’s The Crocodile Bird.
The novel is set in country England, 1990’s, driving us over the recent past 17 years of Eva’s life. It sets off with Liza leaving home at her mother, Eva’s bequest. The police would be back, Eva tells Liza, and they must not catch Liza with her. They had been over for preliminary questioning about a missing drifter, Hughes, now found dead on the secluded land property Eva and Liza occupied. They lived in the Shrove House which Eva was engaged by the landlord to take care of while he travelled on official and personal business.
Liza runs away, not to stay with her mother’s friend, as her mother implored, rather, unbeknown to her mother, to stay with her boyfriend Sean who had once worked for Mr Tobias, the landlord. She soon begins to relate her experience as the ward of an overprotective mother who took to extreme measures to protect them from intrusion to the sacrosanct order of their cloistered lives. These recollections follow in the fashion of Scheherazade telling of the tales from the Arabian Nights.
The suspense builds as the retelling progresses. Liza recalls that her curiosity about the outside world began on her discovery of a television in the Big House. Her mother wasn’t aware of this and Liza kept it from her mother up to the day she left the house. Out now on the road, in a caravan, with Sean, she begins to discover the world through her interactions with people and news media. She learns about radiation, nuclear bombs, exotic and curious places like Miami. Sean is taken by the story of killings at the Shrove House but even more by how sheltered Liza has been.
Liza, by these telling, hopes for some closure on why her mother did what she did. There unfolds a spectrum of reasons from betrayal to a paranoid resistance to change. Also the hint that her mother might be living her life through her daughter’s drives Liza to a quiet resolve to make it in the outside world. Yet she finds herself, daily, becoming like her mother – a circle that would become complete only with a murder by her own hands.
Ruth writes with a great insight into the thinking of the criminal mind, its depravity of ethos. Such themes as woman empowerment is only hinted but, in summa, she gives us an intimation of how we can be more of what we fear we could become just by running from it. Her weaving in out of time, by Liza’s telling, is fluid, to our reading pleasure. Her characters are fully rounded as to be almost anyone’s neighbour or sister even. We find the persona of Liza credible and her odyssey through her experiences – trials and triumphs, alike – much so too. There is no villain in dripping wet shadows on a street corner except in the human heart and the pursuit is suspenseful at every turning of the page. The caramel in this chocolate coating is Ruth’s mastery of the traditional whodunit such as to wield it effectively into a whydunit – to the satisfaction of any crime fiction fan.