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on 26 March 2013
Barbara Vine always sets her novels up very carefully, revealing just so much and no further in order to keep her readers poised on the verge of discovery. Though she sometimes lingers too long on this setting up, she is grand mistress of her genre. Where some might rush through this essential part of the novel, she takes her time. In one sense she has to do this because there are a characters that will move in and out of the action, providing a complex narrative, each with a part to play.

It is the sixties and a house where the host, Cosette, allows a great deal of freedom to her guests who come and go as they like. Elizabeth is the narrator through whom we are given access to much that happens. But then Elizabeth doesn't know everything, and some things she thinks she knows are distinctly wrong. Most of the details relating to what happens in this sixties novel are spot on. The candles which became de rigueur at a sixties party, the spliff smoked in the garden, passed round on a pin. Occasionally one wonders how well things might really have gone with such a mixture of ages in a house, but Cosette's largess rings true, especially after she finds love with a much younger man. Bell, who everyone thinks is his sister (Bell's lies haunt the novel's development) is not who she says she is, and slowly the backstory unravels, bringing a chilling end for one person, and the ruin of betrayal for another.

This is a chilling story altogether, another of Ruth Rendell's alter ego's profound successes.
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I love Vine's books, but whilst I am reading one,I do nothing else. A friend first recommended The House of Stairs and I virtually didn't speak again for three days when I finally finished it. The descriptions are so evocative and detailed, it is almost impossible not to think that the house in Archanagel Place is real. The plot revolves largely round the pampered, but generous,Cosette, a middle aged widow seeking her lost youth. A tender love story unfolds, and the descriptions of the London social scene and the bright young things that populated it in the sixties, make you feel as if you are in the room. The whole story is narrated by Cosette's friend, Elizabeth, who is like a surrogate daughter to her, and whose own secret colours the way she looks at life. So far so good, but throw into this mix the lawless and beautiful Bell, who we know from the start is a murderess and your heart is in your mouth throughout the book. You know someone dies, but who is it? and how? and when? By the time you get attached to a character you think "is it going to be them?" "is she going to do it now?" and the whole book becomes a breathtaking triumph in suspense, atmosphere, tragedy, and love. Buy it, you won't forget it.
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on 20 February 2003
One of the reasons that I prefer Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine (rather than under her own name) is that there is always an underlying 'creepiness' in all Barbara Vine's books, rather than out-and-out murder. The House of Stairs is no exception. The story portrays raw evil in the form of the grey, steely, 'Belle', a woman able to fool both the unsuspecting Elizabeth, and also the sweet, innocent, kind-hearted Cozette. The author builds up the suspense in this story until I found that I was unable to put the book down, actually feeling compelled to read on until the truth about Belle was finally revealed. This story is one of love and betrayal, friendship and deceit;, four factors that work independently to change forever the lives of all involved. Brilliant!
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on 27 December 2014
When Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine her aim is to be more "literary" than she is when she writes under her own name. To that extent only, this novel is autobiographical. The narrator, Elizabeth Vetch, writes successful novels of which she greatly disapproves. All she really wants to write is a scholarly analysis of Henry James. But she needs an income, so she keeps writing books her readers want to read rather than the learned treatise which is all she dreams of.

My own view is that Ruth Rendell is just as good a writer as Barbara Vine (sometimes rather better). But I can understand her yearning to be seen as a "literary" author and I reckon she has found the way to achieve that aim. The characters in Barbara Vine novels do tend to be more complicated than those in Ruth Rendell's. The plots are darker. More time is spent on description, less on action. The literary critics are satisfied but, because she writes so well, her readers are also satisfied (almost as much as they are by the Ruth Rendell novels).

I very much enjoyed this book. There are wonderful descriptions of metropolitan life in the 1960s, Cossette, in particular, is a glorious and entirely genuine character. She is middle aged. Before her husband dies she leads a relatively conventional life in a large house in North London. But, in widowhood, she breaks away from convention. she buys a house, "the House of Stairs", in Notting Hill Gate and soon fills it with all sorts of young people who, on the whole, are only there because they can live off their hostess's untiring generosity. She provides food and drink on a large scale. She takes her guests out for lavish dinners in smart restaurants. She is entirely happy as they sit in her drawing room smoking drugs and indulging in obvious foreplay before finding the nearest bedroom to consummate their relationships. Perhaps not on quite the same scale, I remember people like that in London in the sixties (when I was a teenager).

Many of the other characters, even Bell, about whom the book is really written, are just as credible. Perhaps the only one who is not believable is the narrator herself. That is not apparent at the start of the novel. But, by the end, most readers will be totally bemused by her behaviour. I must not say more about that, but I do think it a slight weakness in the story.

The opening pages describe the narrator seeing someone she is sure is Bell on a pavement in Shepherd's Bush. She, the narrator, jumps out of her taxi in the hope of following Bell. Gradually we work out that Bell is a woman who, fourteen years previously, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. She has now been released. Then we go back to before the court case. We are introduced to Cossette and others. We learn something of their strange (to 21st century eyes) lives. And so the story continues, sometimes in the present time and sometimes in the past. What did Bell do? We think we know, but then we are not sure. The suspense is kept up to the end.

This is almost as good as a Ruth Rendell novel. I recommend it with no hesitation.

Charles
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 January 2015
"I seemed to see Bell as she was almost the first time I ever saw her, walking into the hall at Thornham to tell us that her husband had shot himself"

From the first chapter of The House of Stairs........and yes, it's a great hookline!

I read this many years ago, and a blogger reminded me of its excellence, hence my re-read, and because I know the outcome/conclusion could settle back and enjoy the journey Vine takes us on.

It was originally published in 1988, and was I think the third book Rendell wrote as `Barbara Vine', where her interest is more in dark and complex psychology and a more literary style of writing than her crime and detective fiction `Ruth Rendell' books. Detectives rarely figure in Vine, but the complex central characters twist and unfold often dark deeds, dark motivations, dark histories

This is firstly a splendid evocation of loose, permissive, vibrant and sexy 60s London.

Elizabeth, the central character and narrator, now a woman on the edge of her 40s, is looking back from the 1980s to that earlier period of her life. She is a writer of beach read historical fiction, fairly famous, fairly well off. However, she hankered to be a more serious writer, due to her love of Henry James, and really also wished to write a biography of James. Echoes of the plot of James' Wings of The Dove are a kind of parallel or subtext to this.

Elizabeth, as a passenger in a taxi spots a woman heading towards a tube station who she has not seen for nearly 20 years. `Bell' Sanger has a murky past, and there is also a relationship from that past of some obsession, on Elizabeth's part, with Bell.

The first person story is told by Elizabeth partly in present time (that is its 80s setting) and partly back to the time when she first encountered Bell, in the 60s, and their lives connected, in a dark and destructive way. The narrator is trying to unravel her own past, her own complicity, her own history, and understand her own damaged life. Much of this damage occurred in `The House of Stairs', a large house in West London, owned by Elizabeth's recently widowed aunt, Cosette, who is wealthy, generous, and middle-aged . Cosette is determined to recapture the youth and romance she never had by filling her house with the trendy, freeloading, experimental bright (and not so bright) bohemian young things of swinging London.

Bell has a dark past which we learn all the way back to childhood. She is extraordinarily beautiful, bearing a strong resemblance to Bronzini's portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi. She appears to be passive and indifferent to sex, but is passionately determined never to work. In fact, for Bell, a life of drudging poverty is preferable to working. But freeloading, though not in an obvious way, is something she has a skill for.

Elizabeth too has a potentially dark secret - as an inheritor of a degenerative, rare condition, Huntington's chorea, her family `curse' which may or may not lie dormant within her. At the time of the book's earlier setting, predictive genetic testing for the disease was unknown, as was the statistical mapping of its inheritance. As the condition tended to stay dormant till adulthood inheritors might have already had children before they realised what they might have passed on to them. Elizabeth's own body feels like a ticking time bomb; though symptom free, she is not yet old enough to know she is `out of the woods' and free from that inheritance.

So, with her aunt Cosette, desperately seeking to rediscover youth, Elizabeth unknowing whether she will succumb to a terrible condition or not, and Bell, charismatic in some unostentatious way, amorally in search of a way to enable her to suck the money out of anyone she can, and indifferent towards the methods she might use to achieve her ends, Vine assembles a wonderfully drawn collection of individuals from across the classes, painting a portrait of a society moving from the more rigid mores of the 50s to a period of change, shake up and anything goes sex.

And the twists, turns and plot intricacies, though slowly unfurled, are inexorable and keep the reader glued to `just another chapter'
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on 7 October 2000
I think Barbara Vine is one of the greatest novelists working today-- never mind her lofty status as a mystery writer. "The House of Stairs" is,like her other books, tremendously but unobtrusively literary. The plot involves an ingenious twist on Henry James's "The Wings of the Dove." But "The House of Stairs" is much more than an adaptation of James; it's a very modern thriller with an extremely original cast of characters-- definitely one of Vine's most interesting works.
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This is a wonderful novel of psychological suspense written by Ruth Rendell under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. From the beginning, the reader knows who the murderer is, but the identity of the victim remains in the dark. That murderer is a woman by the name of Christabel Sanger, newly released from prison after fourteen years. Spotted by Elizabeth "Lizzie" Vetch on the streets of London, Lizzie hooks up with Christabel Sanger once again, despite what Christabel once did that got her sent away for so many years. Just who did she kill?

Slowly, the facts begin coming to light. The murder took place in an old, odd house on Notting Hill known as the House of Stairs. There Christabel had been living with Lizzie, as well as with Cossette, Lizzie's recently widowed wealthy cousin and owner of the house. Also living in the house was any number of other quirky characters who would move in and out of the house with relative ease, as Cosette was generous and good-hearted. Little did Cossette know that there could exist such evil within the home she so generously opened to all and sundry.

What slowly unfolds is a tale of monstrous betrayal and cruelty that would cause all those living in the house to disperse and go their own way. Step by step, the author peels back the layers of this mystery to reveal just who was killed, as well as why and how. This is definitely a book to be savored, as the details reveal themselves one by one, painting an elaborate plot that lies at the core of what happened.
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VINE VOICEon 3 January 2004
What I like about Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell is that she has revolutionised modern mystery writing. She takes her time with her plots and her characters, and as a consequence is able to weave a complicated web that is rich in texture. "The House of Stairs" largely concerns a middle-aged lady called Cozette, who has lived her life in a state of middle-class respectability. When her husband dies though she decides to throw caution to the wind and have some of the fun she should have had when she was young. She rents a house in London, the House of Stairs of the title, and fills it with offbeat people to put the colour into her life that she craves. Naturally not all of them have her best interests at heart. Not only is this a first-rate psychological puzzle in the best Vine tradition, but it gives an evocative insight into the world of Swinging Sixties London. I read somebody describing Vine as a modern-day Wilkie Collins, and I can't argue with that. Away from the mysteries though she also makes me think in other ways too, such as when she mentions that the best sunsets are often to be found in cities. Strangely, that's true!
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As Elizabeth Vetch is travelling down the street in a taxi, she suddenly spots a woman whom she used to know many years before. A woman that she thought was still in prison. She calls the vehicle to a stop, and rushes off in pursuit of her old friend. Eventually, Elizabeth looses her amid the bustle of London. Then, here memories triggered by this event, she begins to tell the reader her story...
It's a tale that leads to a time when Elizabeth was staying in a tall boarding house (known by its residents as the House of Stairs) run by her kindly old friend Cosette, when all the varied inhabitants lived in peace and harmony, and when she was in a relationship with the enigmatic bell a woman who will soon be arrested for murder. But, then Mark comes into their lives, and the effects of his presence soon mean that none of their lives will ever be the same again. For death is following in his path...
Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) is quite, quite marvellous. The way she mixes past and present, the current story and the flashbacks to the events which happened at the House of Stairs is masterful, and not nearly as confusing as a lesser writer might make it. Her demonstrations of how the past can hold an inextricable grip on all our future's are brilliantly subtle. The characters she creates are almost unbearably realistic, and few of them are likeable. Even the kindly Cosette's needy dependency may grate on some after a while. She also injects a great subplot concerning the fact that Elizabeth, our narrator, may well have inherited the Huntington's Chorea that runs in her family.
The suspense Rendell creates with the almost unbearably slow (although never, ever boring) teasing out of her plots is immense, and she maintains it right to the end, when the final surprise is revealed. Some longstanding fans of Rendell may be able to guess the main subtle twist that she uses (but not all she has up her sleeve), for she has used a similar one before (but in a rather different way). But then, as another reviewer has said, very aptly, of Rendell, "she pulls back the curtain to reveal, rather than to surprise".
Vine/Rendell is not going to be ideal for anyone who prefers their thrillers to be fast-paced and exciting, with constant surprises, but if you're the sort of reader who admires an intelligent, immaculately written thriller, full of realistic characters, subtle suspense, and with one or two surprises along the way, then there is no one better at providing this that Rendell. The House of Stairs is a prime example.
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I always find Barbara Vine's work deeply disturbing and this is no exception. The thing about her books is that they don't follow the usual murderish plot where we have to wait until the last page to know what has happened. She involves herself instead with the mental processes of those intimately involved with evil and consequently creates creepy, unnerving stories that linger with you long after you have finished reading them.
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