Live Flesh by Ruth Rendell

After his release from prison, a troubled man befriends the man he crippled, and awakens his demons with tragic result.

Though strong in characterization (as always), Live Flesh doesn’t hold up as one of Ruth Rendell’s strongest. On its publication in 1986, I’m sure it made much more of an impact, but in today’s serial killer-saturated culture, this story now feels like old hat.

Victor is a despicable character, by Rendell’s design, but the people he victimizes aren’t much better. The London they inhabit is tawdry and grey, joyless and frustrating. Only one character, the mint-obsessed antique shop owner, finds any pleasure in life. Naturally, there will be a collision and no one will be unscathed.

I’m curious to see Pedro Almodovar’s film. The Netflix synopsis reads:

One of director Pedro Almodóvar’s best films recounts the story of Victor, born on a bus to prostitute Penélope Cruz. As a troubled teen, Victor is in the apartment of drug addict Elena (Francesca Neri). He accidentally shoots a policeman and gets sent to prison. Years later, Victor learns Elena has married the now-paralyzed cop, and he begins to stalk her!

That one paragraph alone contains several significant changes, which I’ve bolded. In the book, Victor is in his late 20s when he commits the crime that sends him to prison. The details we learn about his family life do not include a bus, a prostitute, or being a troubled teen in the home of a drug addict. The woman who ends up with the cop not only is not married to the cop, but isn’t anyone Victor has ever met before.

This last detail is the kind of choice that elevates Rendell’s work. The “friendship” that develops between Victor and David, the cop, and Clare, the woman who loves him and cares for him, is creepy from the get go. David’s and Clare’s motivations, both individual and corporate, aren’t entirely pure nor easily fathomable.

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