Sunday, January 20, 2008

An Author's Nightmare

Although I am a great fan of mysteries I haven't ever really been compelled to read any short story collections by mystery writers. Of course after reading so many ghost stories last fall I'm not sure why I've avoided them. Recently I mooched a copy of Ruth Rendell's Piranha to Scurfy and Other Short Stories. Ruth Rendell, who also writes under the name of Barbara Vine, has been a great favorite of mine for a long time. Sam H. is also a fan and after reading his post last week on Rendell, it prompted me to read one of her stories as well.

I chose the title story of the collection, "Piranha to Scurfy". Strange title, but it does make sense as you are reading the story. Ambrose Ribbon is an author's nightmare. He sees himself as a sort of self-styled 'literary critic'. He's seems particularly drawn to thrillers, but he doesn't read to them for the excitement of the story. He's less interested in what an author does right than what he does wrong. The story opens with him visiting several bookstores buying the latest 'big seller' as well as books just coming out in paper. He'll read the new books through searching for errors in grammar and syntax noting them down as later he'll send the author and the author's publisher a scathing letter enumerating all the book's faults. Occasionally he'll get letter back with promises the errors will be fixed. Not one to take the author on his word, he searches those new paperbacks for the corrections.

Odd man, yes? Ambrose, or shall I say Ribbon, as he prefers to be known, is a total fusspot, which won't surprise you. I'd say Mummy, a rather harassing woman, had a good hand in making him the way he is. He and his mother lived alone after the early death of his father who generously left them royalties from textbooks he wrote. They led a quiet life amongst their books. Rooms and rooms full of bookcases full of books. Nearly all the wall space is covered with them. Recently his mother passed away, but middle aged Ribbon continues on with his 'work'.

His latest annoyance is a wildly popular thriller with overtones of the occult, which the newspapers declare 'will have readers fainting with fear before page 10'. Notebook in hand he begins to read. While he finds the quality poor and the grammar disparaging, he also finds himself so sucked in that he can't stop reading. And the newspapers were right--it is terrifying. This doesn't stop him typing up his letter to the author and sharing his criticisms. It's not long before things start happening, or is he just imagining it?

The story is fairly long, over 70 pages, so more of a novella really. Rendell takes her time to set the scene and build the story. She's always been good at atmosphere and especially creating memorable and interesting characters. Ribbon is a wonderful, or I should say wonderfully annoying character. There's a great little ironic twist at the end. It isn't a completely unpredictable story, but I found it an enjoyable read. I'll have to keep my eye out for more of these types of story collections now.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

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