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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 17, 1930
Place of Birth:London, England
Education:Loughton County High School for Girls, Essex
Read an Excerpt
When he lifted it off the seat the backpack felt heavier than when he had first put it into the car. He lowered it on to the soft ferny ground. Then he got back into the driving seat to move the car deep into a cave made by hawthorn bushes and brambles, and the hop vines which climbed over everything in this wood. It was late June and the vegetation very dense and luxuriant.
Getting out again and standing back to take a good look, he could barely see the car. Probably he only saw it because he knew it was there. No one else would notice it. He squatted down, hoisted the backpack up on to his shoulders and slowly stood up to his full height. The movement reminded him of something and it was a moment before he realised what it was: lifting up his little son to sit on his shoulders. A hundred years ago, it seemed. The backpack was lighter than the boy but felt heavier to him.
He was afraid that if he stood upright the pack would jerk him backwards and break his spine. Of course it wouldn’t. It just felt that way. All the same, he wouldn’t stand upright, wouldn’t even try it. Instead, he stooped, bending almost double. It wasn’t far. He could walk like this the two hundred yards to the bridge. Anyone seeing him from a distance in this half-light would have thought him a humpbacked man.
There was no one to see. The twisty country lane wound round Yorstone Wood and over the bridge. He could have brought the car right up to the bridge but that way it would have been seen, so he had driven off the lane along a ride and then through a clearing to find the hop-grown cave. In the distance he thought he heard a car, then something heavier with a diesel engine. They would be on the road below, Brimhurst Lane that ran from Myfleet to Brimhurst Prideaux, passing under Yorstone Bridge ahead of him. It wasn’t far now but it seemed like miles. If his legs gave way he wouldn’t be able to get up again. Would it be easier to drag the backpack? What, then, if he met someone? Dragging something looks much more suspicious than carrying it. He pressed his shoulders back a little and, surprisingly, that was better. There was no one to meet. He could see the lane through the trees and the little stone bridge no one had reinforced with steel or replaced with a brightly painted wooden structure.
Its parapets were low, too low for safety, according to the local paper. The paper was always on about this bridge, and the dangers of the lane and the low parapets. He walked out on to the bridge, squatted down and let the backpack slip off his shoulders to the ground. He undid the flaps and then the zip. Inside, now revealed, was a lump of concrete, very roughly spherical, a bit bigger than a soccer ball. A pair of gloves was also inside the pack. To be on the safe side, he put them on. Though it would never come to anyone examining his hands, it would be stupid to scrape or bruise them.
What light remained was fading fast and with the coming of the dark it grew cooler. His watch told him that it was nine fifteen. Not long now. He lifted up the lump of concrete in his gloved hands, thought of balancing it on the parapet in readiness, then thought again. It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that someone would come along the path he had used and cross the bridge. Wait for the call, he thought. It won’t be long now.
No traffic had passed along the road below since he had come on to the bridge but a car came now, going towards Brimhurst Prideaux, most probably all the way to Kingsmarkham. He closed his hand over the mobile in his pocket, worried because it hadn’t rung. Then it rang.
‘She’s left. You want the number again?’
‘I’ve got it. A silver Honda.’
‘A silver Honda. Should be along in four minutes.’
He heard the line close. It was dark now. A car passed under the bridge, heading towards Brimhurst St Mary and Myfleet. The road dipped where the bridge passed over it and then twisted to the left, almost a right-angled bend. There were tall trees on the corner with thick ancient trunks and a black and white arrow sign opposite, pointing traffic to the left. A minute had passed.
He moved across to the other side of the bridge, dragging the backpack behind him, and there he bent down, heaved up the lump of concrete, his arms straining, and set it on the parapet. Just as well it wasn’t far to lift it. Another minute gone. A white van with headlights on at full beam came from the Myfleet direction, a car following it, to pass, just behind him, a motorbike coming from Kingsmarkham. He was momentarily blinded by the headlights, held in them, which made him curse. No one should see him. The silver Honda with the number he had memorised would be along soon, very soon. The third minute passed. A fourth.
He hated anticlimaxes. The silver Honda could have taken another route. It was all very well to say it never did but you could never say that, not when it came to the way people behaved. He was facing the way it would come, towards Myfleet. It would pass under the bridge but before it reached the left-hand bend . . . He could see lights in the distance. The lights appeared and disappeared as a hedge or a tree trunk cut them from his view, and appeared again. Two sets of lights, not one car but two, both of them silver, quite close together. One was the Honda but he couldn’t tell which, not from here, not in the dark, but he could read the number or the last three digits.
As soon as he had given a great push to the lump on the parapet and felt it drop, he knew he had aimed at the wrong car. The crash was huge, like a bomb. The first car, the one he had hit, ploughed into a tree trunk, its bonnet burst open, its windscreen gone, half its roof caved in. It seemed to have split and exploded. The car behind, undamaged until this point, crashed into its rear and its boot lid sprang open. That was the silver Honda which had been his quarry. As its driver got out of it, screaming, her hands up in the air, he knew he had failed.
He waited no longer but picked up the backpack and moved, looking back once to see the leading car burst into flames. In the brilliant light which illuminated everything he saw for the first time the woman he had tried to kill.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended as a framework for your group’s discussion of End in Tears.
1. What do you make of the character of Inspector Wexford? What sets him apart from other literary detectives, and what aspects of his personality or approach to his job are reminiscent of characters you’ve encountered before?
2. Consider the relationships between couples that we see in this novel: Hannah and Bal, George and Diana Marshalson, John and Gwenda Brooks, Wexford and Dora, Naomi and Neil (and Sylvia). What common themes do you see in the way that Rendell portrays them? Who in this novel do you think has the healthiest relationship, and why?
3. At the opening of End in Tears, Wexford and Hannah are grating on each other’s nerves. Discuss this underlying conflict between them—his annoyance at her political correctness and her disapproval of his old-fashioned ways. Does this change throughout the course of the book? If so, how? Where else in the novel do we see this kind of generational divide?
4. Discuss the issue of class in modern-day England as it is portrayed in the novel. How do characters ascertain the status of the people around them? Which character is most aware of class differences? Which one is least aware of them? Does class play a role in the murders of Amber and Megan?
5. In explanation for the seemingly impossible belief of the women who paid for the “Miracle Tours” to Africa, Wexford states that:
I don’t think we, as men, will ever quite understand the longing some women, many women, have for a child. We hear talk about sex and self-preservation being the strongest of human instincts or urges. Maybe they are in men. In women the strongest can be a passion for a child of their own. Those women Norman Arlen deceived wanted to believe, they psyched themselves up to believe against all reason because each one of them wanted a baby of her own more than anything in the world. Ten thousand pounds apiece? Twenty? A child of one’s own would be cheap at that price. Fly to Africa, undergo an anesthetic, do something with passports you know in your heart must be illegal—all that is nothing as the price for having your own precious baby [p. 307].
What do you think of this? Can you understand how the longing for a child of her own could make a woman ignore her own better judgment and sign on for something like this, or is that suspension of disbelief too much for you? Can you think of any examples from current events or your own life where a person has gone this far in pursuit of something they desperately want?
6. What is your opinion of the relationship between Hannah and Bal? Do you think his attitude to their physical relationship is for the best in the long run, or do you think that he was being stupid about it? What, if anything, does each of them learn about themselves and each other in the process of sorting this out?
7. The issue of race is another that runs throughout the novel–what particular aspects of racial relations is Rendell commenting on? In what ways do you see race as a factor in the characters’ dealings with each other, and to what extent is it a nonissue? Which character is most preoccupied with race, and why?
8. What do you think of Sylvia’s choices? Why does she agree to carry the baby for Naomi and Neil? Did you think less of her when her true actions were revealed? What do you think the future repercussions will be for all involved—herself, Neil, Naomi, the baby, and her other children?
9. Discuss the author’s use of humor in End in Tears. Why do you think Rendell chooses to employ humor when and where she does? What effect does it have on the reading experience? Are there any places where a humorous comment or interlude led you to a deeper understanding of a character or plot point?
10. Did you catch on to the murderer(s) before Wexford solved the case? What clues did you as the reader have that the detectives were not privy to? Looking back, what signs did you catch or miss that would have pointed the way? Who did you suspect and why?
11. The plot of End in Tears unfolds against a background of extreme weather—from the sweltering heat of the week of Amber’s murder to the blinding snowstorm the night of Hannah’s near-death experience. Why do you think Rendell chooses to place the action of her novel in such extreme conditions—conditions that are for the most part unusual for the area in which the book takes place?
12. Consider the ways that parenthood is portrayed in the novel: Meg and Amber’s casual attitudes toward motherhood; the desperation of Naomi, Diana, and Gwenda; the fights born out of love and concern at the Wexfords; and the irritation and resentment between Cosima Hilland and her mother. We see a number of drastically different families and approaches to parenting. What conclusions did you draw about family relationships in the world of End in Tears? Who did you sympathize with and who did you dislike? In the end, does the traditional family structure hold up better or worse than the modern blended model that Hannah prefers to see? Does it make a difference?
13. On page 263, Wexford quotes Bertrand Russell as having said:
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it isn’t utterly absurd. Indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
In what ways do you see this sentiment reflected in End in Tears? Beyond the Miracle Tour scheme, where else do we see widely held opinions that are in reality “utterly absurd”? Do you agree with this quotation? What do you think compelled Wexford to learn it by heart years ago?
14. Discuss the novel’s title. What does “end in tears” refer to or signify?