As crime fiction goes, The Master of The Moor by Ruth Rendell is perhaps one of the more subtle examples. The action is set in a moorland community, presumably somewhere like North Yorkshire, though the book’s place names are pure invention and geography is not defined. There has been a murder, a fairly vicious affair where the young female victim — perhaps a cliché in itself — has not only been stabbed but scalped as well. The body has been discovered by Stephen, a large man, passionate enough about moorland rambling to write a regular column on the subject for a local newspaper, and thus is probably not unknown in the community. The plot will not be spoiled if it is revealed that, primarily because of his intimate knowledge of the moor, coupled with his solitary nature, Stephen becomes suspect number one. There is another murder and yet another in this small, apparently tightly-knit place.
Stephen is apparently happily married in an unhappy marriage. We learn of his sexual dysfunction, as if it is advertised, while he questions his own birthright. He has a confused elderly relative who lives in a care home. There’s a famous local novelist, now dead, famous for his moorland romances, a writer with whom Stephen feels a strong and special association.
There is Dadda, meaning Stephen’s father, a giant of a man who runs a furniture restoration business. His son is an employee. There is Nick, the man Stephen’s wife is seeing. And then, inevitably, there are policemen involved. There has, after all, been a murder.
Ruth Rendell’s descriptive writing captures the landscape well and also communicates Stephen’s life-long love of the place, its history, its flora and fauna, and its uniqueness. The plot eventually works its way through its own machinations and there is something of a surprise towards the end. So why, then, is such a competently written, engaging and enjoyable book eventually such a disappointment? The answer, surely, is that demands of the genre dominate and diminish the writer’s ability to communicate. And here are four ways in which this happens.
Firstly, there is the all-seeing person at the heart of the process — the writer. As previously stated, Ruth Rendell’s book is very well written and is certainly much more than competent when compared to almost any other form. But the writer here is clearly not to be trusted. There are ideas, facts and facets relating to almost all of these characters that the writer deliberately hides from the reader, merely so that they can be revealed when the plot demands. This happens despite the God-like, all-seeing standpoint that the non-participant narrator adopts and the shifting point-of-view where, apparently, we can be inside the thoughts of any of the characters at whim. And still we do not know what they think! In The Master Of The Moor, for example, Stephen apparently changes colour when he gets angry. We only learn this some way through the tale. Do we assume that this is a new phenomenon? Has he never before been angry? Has no-one ever noticed this tendency, or remarked upon it in this small, tightly-knit community? Perhaps it is merely a convenient vehicle for the story-teller, introduced with little warning to create a spicy moment. Perhaps, then, it is disingenuousness of this type that prompts someone like Alan Bennett to confess that writers generally are not very nice people.
Secondly, there is the function of the characters in relation to the plot. Throughout, the reader senses that the only reasons for identifying aspects of character is to link them to a linear plot that will eventually be resolved, with revealed detail functioning as either evidence or motive. As the process unfolds, such details are revealed sequentially as clues to notice, like scraps of paper strewn on a forest floor to dictate the route to follow. We know that these people only exist as mere vehicles, functionaries whose existence is to serve the illusion. And the journey feels ever more like being led by the nose.
Thirdly, and by no means any less importantly, is the requirement that all belief be suspended, even within a setting that seems to rely upon establishing a sense of realism. Genre fiction seems to be, in relation to this demand upon the reader, to be more demanding than fantasy, horror or even opera. In Master Of The Moor, for instance, we have a total of three bizarre murders in a small, rural community. Not only are these crimes committed in a very short space of time, they are also in the public domain. Meanwhile people in these small towns seem to go on with their lives without those recent events dominating their thoughts, conversations or actions. There have been three murders, and yet it is the local police who are still doing the investigating. Three murders, and still there is neither a plethora of imported reinforcements from even nearby forces, nor is there any invasion by researchers, presenters, technicians or temporary twenty-four hour studios of national and international news gathering organisations. Life, and death, it seems, just goes on. There have been three murders, and apparently not even journalists from local or regional media are on the streets of this small place drubbing out a story. There have been three murders, and yet people still do not have them at the forefront of their gossip. There is no finger pointing. There are no tearful press conferences, and little speculation. And people still discuss furniture restoration, moorland grasses, old mines and out-of-date books before any of the three murders. Reality, the currency of the genre, seems to be strangely absent.
Fourthly, and perhaps most important of all, is the sense that everything presented is formulaic. The victims are all young and female, of course, and men with sexual problems behave strangely. Most people conform to social class stereotypes and anyone with an interest worthy of remark is a suspect.
Master Of The Moor is a good read. It is an enjoyable book. But, via its form, prescriptions and preconceptions, it presents an at best two-dimensional world. Its plot and characters are truly one-dimensional within that frame, mere lines that join up pre-placed dots. There is nothing wrong with the book, but, like its characters, it is imprisoned by the confines of genre and cannot transcend the imposed framework. The experience it offers the reader is therefore limited. Imagination, somehow, seem to be lacking.