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The Birthday Present

The Birthday Present

4.3 11
by Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell

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A deft, insightful, and compulsively readable exploration of obsessive desire--and the dark twists of fate that can shake the lives of even those most insulated by privilege, sophistication, and power.

Ivor Tesham is a handsome, single, young member of Parliament whose political star is on the rise. When he meets a woman in a chance encounter--a beautiful,


A deft, insightful, and compulsively readable exploration of obsessive desire--and the dark twists of fate that can shake the lives of even those most insulated by privilege, sophistication, and power.

Ivor Tesham is a handsome, single, young member of Parliament whose political star is on the rise. When he meets a woman in a chance encounter--a beautiful, leggy, married woman named Hebe--the two become lovers obsessed with their trysts, spiced up by what the newspapers like to call “adventure sex.”

It’s the dress-up and role-play that inspire Ivor to create a surprise birthday present for his beloved that involves a curbside kidnapping. It’s all intended as mock-dangerous foreplay, but then things take a dark turn.

After things go horribly wrong, Ivor begins to receive anonymous letters that reveal astonishingly specific details about the affair and its aftermath. Somehow he must keep his role from being uncovered--and his political future from being destroyed by scandal.

Like a heretic on the inquisitor’s rack, Ivor is not to be spared the exquisitely slow and tortuous unfolding of events, as hints, nuances, and small revelations lay his darkest secrets hideously bare for all the world to see.

Editorial Reviews

Carolyn See
Within the first five pages of The Birthday Present, you know you're in the hands of a mystery/thriller writer who's in perfect control of her material. In addition to that fabulous control, Rendell/Vine maintains a matronly, almost magisterial tone that lends unexpected dignity to the goriest, creepiest material. It is her trademark.
—The Washington Post
Marilyn Stasio
A typically cruel and subtle piece of work by Ruth Rendell, writing under her Barbara Vine pseudonym, the novel charts the calamitous career trajectory of a Conservative member of Parliament when he tries to evade the consequences of a sexual misadventure that results in two deaths, including that of his married lover…Ivor can't avoid becoming ridiculous; but because Vine leaves out nothing in portraying him, he remains likable—never admirable, but likable.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

British master Vine (the pen name of Ruth Rendell), a life Labor peer who used her knowledge of politics in 2002's The Blood Doctor to explore the personal rather than the political ramifications of power, does both in this intricate novel, which charts the wreckage caused by Ivor Tesham, a Conservative member of Parliament, who concocts a kinky present for his married mistress-a mock kidnapping that results in a mixup of identities and murder. While nothing links the MP to the crime, the elitist Tesham, with his callous attitude toward people and public service alike, realizes justice may eventually catch up with him. Vine knows "how we walk all the time on that thin crust that covers terrible abysses." The consequences for the innocent victims of Tesham's recklessness provide the book's deep and genuine pathos. Full of psychological insight, this is an absolute must for Vine/Rendell enthusiasts-and those who have yet to encounter her genius. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Ivor Tesham, a dashing member of Parliament, decides to give his married mistress, Hebe, an unusual birthday gift. He hires two men to kidnap her and transport her, bound and gagged, to their weekend love nest. Everything has been carefully planned-when the kidnappers' car is hit by a truck shortly after the abduction; Hebe and one of the kidnappers are killed, the other one is seriously injured. Ivor fears obsessively that the man will recover and tell the media the truth about his involvement. Vine (The Minotaur) paints a disturbing picture of a man whose dark secret is driving him to the edge of sanity. The setup is a bit slow, but once everything is in place, the tension remains high. Highly recommended.
—Linda Oliver

Kirkus Reviews
Ruth Rendell's 13th pseudonymous novel traces the four years of unintended consequences following a Conservative MP's ill-advised attempt to spice up his sex life. If they hadn't been sexually adventurous, precocious, well-regarded statesman Ivor Tesham and glamorous housewife Hebe Furnal never would have gotten together so quickly and combustibly. But Ivor's birthday present to Hebe, in addition to the pearl necklace prudently indistinguishable from paste that he's already given her, raises the stakes several levels from dressing up and role-playing. Warning her only that she'll get a nice surprise if she's on a certain street at a certain time, he hires two men to kidnap her and deliver her, bound and gagged, to his bed-or rather to the bed of his sister Iris and her husband Rob Delgado, who've obligingly lent him their house without knowing what he has in mind. When this naughty but innocuous plan goes disastrously wrong, two people are killed; a millionaire's wife suffers a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown; Hebe's best friend, librarian Jane Atherton, is saddled with guilty knowledge without knowing what to do with it; and Ivor is left bobbing on a bubble of rising success that's threatened by any number of objects with the lethal potential of unexploded bombs (Jane's diary, Hebe's box of sex toys, that string of pearls) and variously complicit parties-his fiancee Juliet Case, Hebe's benighted husband Gerry, IRA terrorist Sean Lynch and, finally, Jane, whose agonized inner conflicts and deepening madness show once more Rendell's unrivaled insight into the unacknowledged dark places of the psyche. The string of calamities that inevitably ensue is expertly braided with the politicalfortunes of the Conservatives and afterwards in a masterly rebuke to critics who think suspense novels are too insulated from social reality. Less dense and gloomy than most of Vine's work (The Minotaur, 2006, etc.), though that's a matter of degree. Despite an untidy and anticlimactic ending, as gripping a tale as you'll read this year. Agent: Bruce Westwood/Westwood Creative Artists
A superb and original writer
From the Publisher
Praise for Barbara Vine

“One of the most remarkable novelists of her generation.”

“The best mystery writer in the English-speaking world.”

“One of the finest practitioners of her craft in the English-speaking world.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Her clear, shapely prose casts the mesmerizing spell of the confessional.”
The New Yorker

“A brilliant writer.”
Chicago Tribune

“Queen of suspense. . . . She’s a master of technique.”
Detroit Free Press

“Surely one of the greatest novelists presently at work in our language.”
—Scott Turow

“Those who haven’t read her books have missed something unique and wonderful.”
—Tony Hillerman

“Barbara Vine has transcended her genre by her remarkable imaginative power to explore and illuminate the dark corners of the human psyche.”
—P. D. James

“Unequivocally the most brilliant mystery writer of our time. She magnificently triumphs in a style that is uniquely hers and mesmerizing.”
—Patricia Cornwell

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt


Thirty-three is the age we shall all be when we meet in heaven because Christ was thirty-three when he died. It’s an interesting idea. One can’t help thinking that the people who invent these things chose it because it’s an ideal age, no longer one’s first youth but not aging either. It was Sandy Caxton who told me this when I sat next to him at Ivor’s birthday dinner, his thirty-third of course, and Ivor said afterward that Sandy had a store of that sort of wisdom. My own opinion is that Sandy was just changing the subject because I’d asked him if he lived in London.

“I’m awfully sorry,” he said, “but I can’t tell you that.” And, noticing my mystified look, “I used to be the Northern Ireland Secretary, you see, and we’re not supposed to tell anyone where we live.”

I did see. I should have known. Ivor told me there was even a bodyguard somewhere at the party, and wherever it was that Sandy lived the police with sniffer dogs searched the local church before he went to matins. Not that it did him any good in the end. They still got him at the time they chose. But more of that later. Iris had been sitting next to Ivor’s friend Jack Munro, a favorite of hers, and it was rather reluctantly that she said good-bye to him, as she and I had to leave before the others. We had a trustworthy babysitter, but we wanted to get back to Nadine. She was our first child, the first of our four, and we were both so besotted that we fretted if we were away from her for long. Even to celebrate her uncle’s heavenly birthday. Even when she was in the care of one of her grandmothers.

There was one person close to Ivor (in a manner of speaking) absent from the party.

“Ivor’s girlfriend wasn’t there,” I said as we were going up Fitzjohn’s Avenue.

“She wouldn’t have been asked. You know Ivor. In some ways he’s living in the distant past. One doesn’t invite the mistress to meet one’s friends.” Iris made the face she always used to make when her brother’s peculiarities came up, her smile a little rueful. “Besides, having to spend an evening out with her instead of in with her he’d think a waste of time.”

“It’s like that, is it?”

“It’s probably only like that,” she said.

Mention his name and most people will say, “Who?” while the rest think for a bit and ask if he wasn’t “the one who got involved in all that sleaze back in whenever it was . . .”

Necessarily, because my brother-in-law was a politician through and through, I’ll have to talk about politics. But increasingly I find how ignorant I am and how much the minutiae of politics bore me. I shall gloss over a great deal of this aspect of Ivor’s life, only touching on what I hope are the interesting bits and, of course, because no one could speak of this period and leave them out, the departure of Margaret Thatcher, the coming of John Major, and the general elections of 1992 and 1997.

I’m putting in Jane Atherton’s diary. Not just some of it but the whole thing as it was sent to Juliet. Ivor’s history and, come to that, Hebe Furnal’s wouldn’t be complete without it. The package arrived and then a letter under separate cover, as they say. Ivor never saw either. I don’t suppose he even knew of the existence of the diary. Too much had happened to him for any more risk-taking, and he was keeping his head buried in the sand. Jane was a friend of Hebe’s and about as unlike her, it seems, as two female creatures belonging to the same species and living in the same time can be unlike each other. I suppose she was of use to Hebe. Whatever else she may have done for her, apart from filling a role as foil to her particular charms, she provided her with alibis. The chances are that if she hadn’t agreed to provide a certain alibi, none of this would have happened.

I never met Hebe. I never even saw her. Like the rest of the world, I saw her picture in the papers after the accident, a pretty blonde, almost beautiful, with the looks of a model. And, also like the rest of the world, I confuse her with the other pretty blonde, the one the men thought they were taking when they took her, or the police or the press thought they were taking when they took her. The mystery of which girl was the intended victim was never publicly solved. How angry it made Ivor that anyone could mistake Hebe Furnal for Kelly Mason, though it seemed at first to his advantage that they did, as the assumption made by the police (or the press) moved the spotlight away from its search for him. And that’s the way I see it, as if a flashlight was held in a hand that glanced probingly over dark corners, seeking for an instigator, its light once or twice nearly touching him before it shifted away.

Hebe Furnal, twenty-seven years old, a housewife with a degree in media something or other and a two-year-old son called Justin. Wife of Gerry Furnal and mistress of Ivor Tesham, MP. “Mistress” is a bit of an archaism, but Iris used it and Ivor himself did when, a week or two after the thirty-third birthday, he asked me if I thought he should buy a flat for Hebe and visit her there. He would occasionally ask my advice, though of course he never took any notice of it. People don’t, especially when they’ve asked for it. Anyway, Ivor had already made up his mind.

“In some ways,” he said, “the idea appeals. You can imagine in what ways. But I don’t think I will. It’s too much like some eighteenth-century rake setting up his mistress in apartments in Shepherd Market.”

“You can’t afford Shepherd Market,” I said.

“True. But I could afford Pimlico, say. Only I won’t. It would lead to other complications.”

There was more of this, but I’ll come back to it. As to Kelly Mason, she was the “Checkout Chick,” the “Supermarket Cinderella,” who had married a television mogul and was famous for doing nothing but wearing blue satin with sequins and not being kid?napped. Where is she now? Rumor has it that she’s in a private psychiatric hospital, but a more likely story has her and her carers in the isolated villa on the South Pacific island her husband bought for her. Whichever it is, it seems to be true that she is hidden away because she is too afraid to live in the world, and without Ivor’s intervention in her life, unintentional though it was, she would be the happy occupant of a house in the Bishops Avenue and perhaps the mother of Damian Mason’s children.

To introduce you to Ivor—you may not remember him from the days when he was a minister in John Major’s government—I don’t think I can do better than give you his entry in Dod’s, the directory of Members of Parliament:

Ivor Hamilton Tesham, Born January 12 1957. Son of John Hamilton Tesham and Louisa, neé Winstanley; Educated Eton College, Windsor; Brasenose College, Oxford (MA law); Single; Called to the Bar 1980, Lincoln’s Inn; Barrister specializing in Commercial Law. Contested Overbury 1987 general election; Member for Morningford since by-election January 27 1988. Committees: Foreign Affairs, Defence; PPS in 1989 to John Teague: as Secretary of State for Defence; in 1990 Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Defence; in 1992 Minister of State for Air Power Overseas in the Department of Defence; Recreations: Theatre, music, reading; Address: House of Commons, London SW1.

I’ve known him since he was a small boy in Ramburgh and I was five years older. Though we moved away when I was eight, I was born in that village, as were Ivor and my wife. They look a lot alike, Ivor and Iris, and he is three years her senior. They are both tall and dark and slender. Sandy Caxton said Iris had the face of an Israelite princess, Rachel weeping for her children, though the only Jewish blood she and Ivor have came into the family in the early nineteenth century. I’m told Ivor was very good-looking, but I’m no judge of that. When he and I walked into a restaurant or a bar together I’ve seen women turn and look, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t staring at me.

When all this happened he had been “seeing” (as he put it) Hebe Furnal for about a year. Prior to that an actress called Nicola Ross had been his girlfriend, and when the end came they parted amicably. I don’t know why they did or why it was amicable, though Iris told me it had nothing to do with Hebe’s coming onto the scene. She seemed to think the Nicola Ross affair wasn’t exciting enough for Ivor. They were both single and unattached. Some said they were made for each other. Nicola, who he always called Nixie, was a suitable woman for an MP to be going about with, a handsome blonde with an increasingly successful career, a year or two older than he. He had even taken her to Ramburgh House to meet his parents, but he had never quite reached the point of moving in with her or asking her to move in with him. That was his way, though. He had never lived with a woman. Then came the break-up and Hebe Furnal. When he asked if he could borrow our house (for a never fully explained purpose) he told me how they had met.

“It was at a reception in the Jubilee Room,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in there. It’s up a grim sort of flight of stairs at the far end of Westminster Hall. We were waiting for the seven o’clock vote and I’d nothing to do. Jack Munro said why not come along to this reception. It was being given in aid of a charity called HALT—the Heart and Lung Trust.”

“I heard someone make one of those appeals for them on the radio,” I said.

“Yes, well, Jack said I might as well come along and get a free drink, which means the gnat’s piss which passes for Sauvignon in the Jubilee Room. Anyway, I went. The HALT fund-raiser’s a man called Gerry Furnal, but I never met him. I met his wife instead.”

He smiled that little reminiscent smile of his.

“Go on,” I said.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Barbara Vine’s acclaimed novels include The Minotaur, The Blood Doctor, and Anna’s Book. She has won many awards for literary accomplishment, both as Barbara Vine and as Ruth Rendell, including three Edgar Awards and four Gold Daggers.

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The Birthday Present 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Curle up under the tree, tears of anger beggining to fill her eyes. "Why Foxtail? I have tried to prove my loyalty ever since i joined... but instead she chose Foxtail...."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really good read. The narrator was sympathetic, the plot was unique. The characters were very well developed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
annadawn More than 1 year ago
Barbara Vine -- the novelist Ruth Rendell's literary alter ego -- is one of my favorite authors. While the Rendell opus leans toward more standard detective style mystery (still great), the Vine work is more psychological, mystery unfolding more in the realm of human motivation and brokenness (she deals particiularly well with the ambiguities of sexual desire) than in back-alleys and police notebooks. I always nab her new work as soon as it comes out. (And unlike P.D. James, who seems to have fallen into a formulaic rut as she has moved into her "Dame" life, Vine/Rendell stays fresh. Probably because she's Labour, not Tory.)
Anonymous 6 months ago
Hurries up. "Oh! Thank you. I came as fast as l could. But it seems you were faster." Bows his head.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Ran in and killed the bears before dissapearing.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous 7 months ago
"Oh Vinetail. I know that you have tried so hard to prove your loyalty and you have! I just think that well we need someone who doesnt necassarily always want to jump into battle." She looked slightly hurt as she curled by Vinetail. "Please dont e abgry at me. I do what I think to be right. Believe me its hard to be leader. So many choices."