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The Lake of Darkness (1980)

by Ruth Rendell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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398765,082 (3.75)18
Martin Urban is a quiet bachelor with a comfortable life, free of worry and distractions. When he unexpectedly comes into a small fortune, he decides to use his newfound wealth to help out those in need. Finn also leads a quiet life, and comes into a little money of his own. Normally, their paths would never have crossed. But Martin's ideas about who should benefit from his charitable impulses yield some unexpected results, and soon the good intentions of the one become fatally entangled with the mercenary nature of the other.--Publisher description.… (more)
  1. 00
    The St. Zita Society by Ruth Rendell (Imprinted)
    Imprinted: Both of these Ruth Rendell novels contain memorable characters of disparate backgrounds and social status who become entwined in a complex and deceptive plot.
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» See also 18 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Snow, the lottery, murder, con artists, unheated homes, independent contractors, tarot, schizophrenia, misguided altruism, and one bratty kid. All in less than 160 pages. Rendell is a BOSS. ( )
  Amateria66 | May 24, 2024 |
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Review of the Arrow Books paperback edition (1994) of the original Hutchinson (UK) hardcover (1980)

Finn finished his drink. He said nothing. He was beginning to be aware that an offer was about to be made to him but for what and in exchange for what he couldn’t tell. […] Finn’s gaze fell and rose again. He was overwhelmed by the munificence of this offer. His fame had indeed spread before him, and it wasn’t his fame as a plumber and decorator. Yet one to him were fame and shame, he was without vanity.


This was a dark noir which continues my current Ruth Rendell read/re-read binge. It is the third of my non-Wexford Rendells after A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) (published under her pseudonym of Barbara Vine) and A Judgement in Stone (1977).

The Lake of Darkness is a dance of death where three characters circle each other at a distance for most of the book until the final fatal confrontations. It is not always obvious what the tie-ins are going to be until a reveal occurs about 2/3rds into the book. Saying too much about that will be a spoiler so I will just stick to the main characters and plot.

Accountant Martin Urban wins slightly over ₤100,000 in a football pool (this 1980 amount would be the equivalent of ₤400,000 in 2022 value or about $500,000 U.S.). Martin himself had not previously played or even understood football pools, but had been given a formula by an acquaintance Tim Sage who was a journalist. After his win though, Martin decides to hide that information from Tim (he is somewhat suspicious about Tim's character and there is a hint of fear about his own latent bisexuality). Martin is still altruistic enough that he decides to share his good fortune with several others by helping them in their lives. These offers are often met with suspicion and doubt however. Martin also meets and falls in love with a young woman named Francesca who works at a florist shop.

The other main character of the book is handyman Finn (the last name only is used), the son of Lena Finn who was once the cleaning lady for Martin's parents, but who has fallen on hard times due to a mental breakdown. The psychopathic Finn (who also has delusions of occult powers) moonlights as a strongman & hitman for landlords who seek to evict tenants from buildings against their will. Finn is used to acting on oblique hints and orders by his employers who loathe to speak directly about violence and murder.

This all leads to very dark consequences for some of the characters involved. What kept it out of 5 star territory for me was the amount of coincidence and misinterpretation required to reach that result. But this is fiction requiring drama and suspense and some trickery is obviously required to get there. In any case, this is much darker that the often light mysteries of the Inspector Wexford series with Wexford's quoting of the classics and his banter with his assistant Burden.

See cover image at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/7d/Thelakeofdarkness.jpg
Cover image for the original Hutchinson UK hardcover edition from 1980. Image sourced from Wikipedia. It is believed that the cover art can or could be obtained from Hutchinson., Fair use, Link.

The book's title is taken from Shakespeare:
Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend. - spoken by Edgar in King Lear Act 3 Scene 6.


Trivia and Links
The Lake of Darkness was adapted for television as part of the UK Ruth Rendell Mysteries series as The Lake of Darkness (1999) in Season 11 Episodes 8 & 9. I could not find a free trailer or a free posting of it online. I did find that it was available as part of the Britbox Canada streaming channel as The Ruth Rendell Mysteries: Next Chapters as Season 6 Episode 1 (combining the original two separate episodes into one) here. ( )
  alanteder | Mar 22, 2023 |
3.5/5

I don't know if it was just coincidence but this book had essentially the same theme as The Face of Trespass which was the previous Rendell book I'd read. That is, a terrible betrayal of a bit of a loner and the intertwining of two stories that seem at first unrelated. I still don't know what it is about Rendell's books that appeal. Certainly they are overly descriptive at times at the expense of the plot, in this case in the details of London roads and locations. Perhaps it's because they're evil characters are quite Shakespearean and like Shakespeare they deal with primal motives such as greed, envy etc. ( )
  Stephen.Lawton | Aug 7, 2021 |
Ruth Rendell was once a favorite author of mine but I have found that her writing and plots in her later books became a little stodgy and judgmental. With this read, I went back to one of her earlier books, The Lake of Darkness, to see it still had that dark edge that I enjoyed in her writing. I am happy to report that, for the most part, it did.

This author excels in interlocking plots where the reader can see that a collusion is inevitable but the fun is in the getting there. While the characters in Lake of Darkness are a fairly unlikable crew, the story grabs hold and a revenge plot is slowly revealed. Tim feels that the priggish accountant, Martin, would not have had his big win in the football pools without his help but Martin has decided not to tell Tim of the win. Martin does try to give a large chunk of his money to needy people, but this does not always go smoothly and one of his charity cases brings the psychotic serial killer, Finn, into the mix.

I found Lake of Darkness an entertaining thriller that started slowly but built a lot of momentum as the story escalated. The writing is good, the dialogue hits all the right notes and as the story originated in 1980, the setting of 1980’s London and it’s housing problems is interesting. I would certainly recommend that if one is interested in reading this author, that they start with one of her earlier books rather than the ones that were published later. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Dec 15, 2017 |
Ruth Rendell deserves the praise she has garnered over the years. This is a well constructed tale of flawed people intersecting each others lives. Even though it was published over 30 years ago, it still stands up today. ( )
  rsummer | Nov 20, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ruth Rendellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Giannini, FenisiaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness... King Lear
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Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending, others' possessions.
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Martin Urban is a quiet bachelor with a comfortable life, free of worry and distractions. When he unexpectedly comes into a small fortune, he decides to use his newfound wealth to help out those in need. Finn also leads a quiet life, and comes into a little money of his own. Normally, their paths would never have crossed. But Martin's ideas about who should benefit from his charitable impulses yield some unexpected results, and soon the good intentions of the one become fatally entangled with the mercenary nature of the other.--Publisher description.

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