A suspense novel that may have pushed too far

Live Flesh, by Ruth Rendell. New York: Pantheon Books. 272 pp. $15.95. In her psychological suspense novels, British writer Ruth Rendell examines the darker side of human nature, and in so doing, she continually pushes against the limits of the suspense novel. But in her latest novel has she pushed too far?

Rendell is one of the foremost writers in the mystery field (she also writes the popular and more traditional Inspector Wexford series), and ``Live Flesh'' displays many of the fine qualities evident in her other novels. It is skillfully written. The story is suspenseful, haunting, complex, and thought-provoking. The characters are completely and sympathetically drawn, and Rendell handles the subject matter and the characters' problems compassionately.

Unlike her last two psychological novels, however (``The Tree of Hands'' and ``The Killing Doll''), in which the main characters are normal people pushed by circumstances into doing things they shouldn't, the main character of ``Live Flesh'' is a mentally disturbed young man. Driven by an uncontrollable panic, Victor Jenner has committed several rapes. He shoots a promising young police officer in the back, confining David Fleetwood to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Victor is sent to prison for 14 years. After he is released he befriends David and his girlfriend Clare, with disastrous results.

Rendell's use of Victor's warped mentality as the main viewpoint is disturbing and sometimes distasteful. Victor generates both sympathy and revulsion. Although he feels remorse for having shot David and genuine affection for David and Clare, he is incapable of helping himself. No one else helps Victor either, although no one realizes he needs help until it is too late.

David, on the other hand, is an admirable character who has forgiven Victor and created a new life for himself. If Fleetwood were the main character instead of Jenner, ``Live Flesh'' would have both pushed at the limits of the kind of novel Rendell writes so well, and kept the interest of the reader whose taste and expectations have been informed by her earlier successes.

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