As a service to reading groups, John Mullan deconstructs a notable novel available in paperback. This week he is looking at the opening of Ruth Rendell's Adam and Eve and Pinch Me
The logic in that first sentence is in the mind of a character whom we might call "disturbed" - whom, in an earlier age, we would have called "mad". As the opening chapter unfolds, we find out that she lives her life without anyone else, except the reader, noticing that she is ruled by delusions. She holds down a job, she socialises with her neighbours; and she sees ghosts and hears voices.
When we talk about famous openings of novels, we usually mean resonant first sentences rather than beautifully crafted first scenes or chapters. Rendell specialises in first sentences. At once, you are to be unsettled. The arresting opening statement epitomises her method.
Typically, her novels take you into the strange reasoning of twisted characters. In The Killing Doll, a teenager believes that he has made a pact with the Devil. In Going Wrong (which could be a generic title for most of Rendell's novels), a criminal wrongly believes that a glamorous, upper-class woman is in love with him. The fiction invites us to inhabit some parallel world of obsession or deranged conviction. The narrator will record deluded thought processes, yet without the distance that would permit judgment by the reader. Rendell writes "Minty knew ...", rather than "thought" or "imagined".
Even the name is off-balance: "Minty". It could be some term of endearment, an affectionate nickname maybe, but here it sounds simply peculiar. And it will be important in the plot. If you are a Rendell aficionado who has yet to devour Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, you might stop here. While book reviews are often more amusing or intelligent than much literary criticism, they are constrained by a code of practice that lit crit can ignore. Reviews of Rendell's novel did not give away "what happens", so they could not say that "Minty" will be turned into a nickname, "Polo", by the predatory con-man who befriends her, and that this will later enable another of his victims to trace her.
"You never were all that balanced, Polo," she hears "Jock" say. Teasing is his way with the women he tricks. The novel's title is the first line of one of his childish rhymes:
Adam and Eve and Pinch Me
Went down to the water to bathe
Adam and Eve were drownded
Who was saved?
"Pinch me," says the gullible Minty - and he does. But then, she is weirder than he can guess, and she will finally kill him. The nastiness of the rhyme becomes real. "When you talk to God it's praying but when God talks to you it's schizophrenia," jokes the owner of the dry-cleaner's to Minty, not guessing why she does not laugh.
"More people are nuts, as you call it, than you'd think," Minty's policeman neighbour tells his wife. Minty has what psychiatrists call an "obsessive-compulsive disorder". She is always cleaning herself and everything around her, and the narrative painstakingly follows all her purifying procedures. Another leading character is a male anorexic, and we are taken in detail through all his special aversions. The narrative, as in that opening sentence, adopts the very patterns of fixation.
Another central character - a rich, lordly, gay Tory MP - is, in comparison with these obsessives, a mere stereotype. You might have thought that from her experience in the House of Lords, Rendell would have had every opportunity to make this character credible. Yet it is not him but Minty - in all her exacting peculiarity - who comes to life.
We see how she becomes a murderer, not because she is evil or psychopathic, but because she is living in a world of her own. The novel interests us precisely by implying that, in different circumstances - if "Jock" had not picked on her as a victim - she would have gone on living her peculiar life. Indeed, she has no notion that she is a killer. "It's wicked to murder people," she says. "Look at the trouble it causes."