The Edgar Awards Revisited: A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (Best Novel; 1987)
In 1987, it wasn't a whodunnit, but rather a groundbreaking and structurally jaw-dropping whydunnit that took home the Edgar Award for Best Novel.
I wish I could have eavesdropped on the Edgar committee for 1987.
“Are you kidding me?” someone might have said. “A Dark-Adapted Eye? Barbara Vine, whoever that is, tells who did it on page one! What kind of a mystery is that?”
Someone else may have chimed in. “Listen, Barbara Vine is a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell, and she knows what she’s doing.”
“Yeah,” someone else may have said, “but it’s supposed to be the Edgar for Best Mystery. If you give away the killer on page one, and it turns out it really is the killer, then… I think we should pick someone else.”
Somehow, that didn’t happen. And now, all these years later, it’s easier to understand why.
I worried about whether it was fair to read A Dark-Adapted Eye for the first time in 2019. I made a lot of decisions in 1986 that don’t seem so wise all these years later—my hair, for instance. It seemed perfect at the time, but now I cringe at the photos. In the real world, Chernobyl happened. Oprah debuted her new show. Everyone was watching Top Gun. Otto Preminger and Cary Grant died. Lady Gaga was born. Things were ending, and beginning, and a psychological tide was turning.
Maybe Barbara Vine, a.k.a. Ruth Rendell, was signaling, with her pseudonym, that she too, was looking at the world a different way. Not writing a whodunit (as in her renowned Inspector Wexford novels), but a groundbreaking and structurally jaw-dropping whydunnit.
But if a new writer pitched this book today, the agent would toss it in the reject pile after the first several pages. Backstory backstory backstory. Family tree family tree family tree, family tree to the point of excruciating frustration. Get to the story! The agent would cry.
Too bad for the agent. Turns out, the family is the story. And the devious Barbara Vine is luring us into her sinister tale, step by step and hand over hand, exposing us to the depths of treachery, duplicity, manipulation, and revenge.
Our storyteller is Faith Severn, a survivor, who is contacted by a crusading journalist asking for information on how Faith’s notorious aunt, Vera Hillyard, wound up being executed for murder.
Will Faith help him? Can she? And does she really know what happened? We can’t wait to find out, wishing she would hurry as she remembers and relives and analyzes and wonders.
At the beginning of the book, Vine offers us an important definition: “A dark-adapted eye” means an eye that’s been trained to see under low light conditions. This is not something that happens instantly—such adaptation is slow and gradual. Perhaps that’s how Vine wants us to look at Faith’s world. With a dark-adapted heart, we see things how they really were, not with the glow of concocted history. Or with the veneer of what we believed to be true.
“They were very good psychologists, those old lawyers,” one character says. “They had people like you in mind when they formulated the oath: I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They knew all about leaving bits out and putting bits in.”
In her youth, we learn, Faith was sent to live with her Aunt Vera, when the constant threat of World War II, the London bombings, and the undercurrent and fear ravaged England physically, emotionally, and socially. As a teenager, Faith and her friends were calculatedly oblivious of the threat that loomed, and some grownups were, too.
Faith’s complicated and manipulative Aunt Vera, and Vera‘s younger sister, the glossy and unassailably perfect Eden, weave a web of mean-girl secrecy and private jokes around poor Faith. They set up Faith, the interloper-outsider, for failure, for withering criticism, for emotional dismissal. They set impossible standards.
Faith tells us:
They had the power, those two, of making their world—narrow, confined, and bourgeois, as I now see it—an esoteric intensely desirable place, rather like an exclusive club with unimaginably strict conditions for membership…. I listened attentively, hoping, though hoping in vain, for some inquiry to be put to me, asking my opinion, instead of the kind of questions I finally got: “Do you always eat with your right hand?”
As we share Faith’s longing and bitterness and seething envy, we already know that somehow, years and years in the future, Vera was convicted of murder. Why would she do that? This obsessive social-climber embraced and flaunted the highest of standards and the highest of morals and the highest of expectations for herself and her family. What could have caused Vera Hillyard to do such a shocking and uncharacteristic thing?
This is what Faith—and the journalist who’s waiting for the answers—is working to discover.
I will admit, I fear, if I had read this book in 1986—when, after all, the best sellers of the year were Danielle Steele, Judith Krantz, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King—I might have given up on this book after a couple of chapters, asking out loud, is anything going to happen soon?
And had I done that, I would not have been treated to the glorious masterful innovative structure that Vine uses to create this sinister disturbing puzzle. Gradually, in her own brilliantly created order, Vine lets us in on the whole story, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, without letting us know where the puzzle pieces fit.
Little by little, we begin to see an unsettling reality, and just like the journalist who is trying to discover what really happened that critical day, we begin to realize that the answers are not always clear.
I wish I had been there for the final Edgar vote. “It’s fine, I guess,” someone would have said.
“I think it’s risky,” someone else might have warned.
“This one will become a classic,” said the sage one in the back. And that person was correct. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a tour de force in structure, and an uncanny psychological study of family, expectations, aspiration, envy, and revenge. And in the need, it reveals the one obsessive emotion that can push a seemingly-normal person over the edge into madness.
Fun Facts from the 1987 Edgar Awards:
Ruth Rendell’s pseudonym Barbara Vine came from her own middle name, Barbara, and her great grandmother’s maiden name.
According to her obituary in The Telegraph, “After high school, Rendell became a feature writer for her local Essex paper, the Chigwell Times. She was forced to resign after filing a story about a local sports club dinner she hadn’t attended and failing to report that the after-dinner speaker had died midway through the speech.”
Rendell wrote two unpublished novels before the 1964 publication of From Doon with Death, which was purchased for £75 by John Long. That was the first mystery (of 24) to feature her enduring and popular detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford.
Other Edgar nominees for best novel in 1987 were P.D. James for A Taste of Death, Joe Gores for Come Morning, Brian Freemantle for The Blind Run, and Roger L. Simon for The Straight Man.
- The Great Mouse Detective, The Name of the Rose, and Manhunter lost the Best Screenplay Edgar to E. Max Frye’s Something Wild.
Next week, tune in as Gabino Iglesias stops by to discuss Old Bones by Aaron Elkins by. See you then!