The House of Stairs Summary
by Ruth Rendell

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The House of Stairs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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Ruth Rendell, well known for her Inspector Wexford mysteries, has written three novels as Barbara Vine, a name she has chosen for the deeper-probing, slower-paced, more intuitive crime writer whom she harbors within herself. The most recent of these, THE HOUSE OF STAIRS, is narrated in the first person from the perspective of Elizabeth Vetch, a hack novelist with a fascination for the psyches and motives of the real characters around her. Elizabeth becomes the unwitting catalyst for a murder, the events surrounding which she unfolds layer after layer, weaving back and forth through many years and through the lives of many curious characters. These include the enigmatic Christabel Sanger--"Bell"--whose power over others becomes the central puzzle of the novel. There is Cosette, a distant relative of Elizabeth who takes her in as a daughter in her “House of Stairs,” which becomes the scene of the crime. There is Mark Henryson, whose guilelessness traps him between two facets of feminine care: the protective and the possessive. And there are a host of other characters who at some time or other occupy the House of Stairs, including Felicity Thinnesse, the overbearing mistress of Thornham Hall, a country estate where Elizabeth first meets Bell; “Auntie,” whose role as little old lady is cast by Cosette, who desperately discourages that perception of herself; Ivor Sitwell--parasitic, disdainful, and a fraud; and numerous hangers-on whose images appear, disappear, and reappear throughout the narrative.

Barbara Vine pulls and twists the reader through the minds of these characters, while depositing enticing fragments of plot development at strategic points along the way. This technique creates a dynamic parallel between the reader and the characters, who themselves are wresting increasingly deeper meaning out of passions and memories pulled and twisted in search of resolution. The effect is to spellbind the reader to near exhaustion, but the final twist of plot is well worth the effort.