Short Story Saturday: Ruth Rendell’s “A Dark Blue Perfume”

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The Rather Ominous Cover of Collected Stories

This week’s Saturday Short Story is from a favorite author of mine, Ruth Rendell, who died very suddenly in May 2015. “A Dark Blue Perfume” was part of Rendell’s 1985 short story collection The New Girl Friend, but it can also be found in the really wonderful compilation of her work titled Ruth Rendell: Collected Stories that was published in the U.S. in 1987. That collection encompasses the short stories from four previous Ruth Rendell collections: The Fallen Curtain, Means of Evil, The Fever Tree, and The New Girl Friend (38 stories in total).

“A Dark Blue Perfume” is the story of a man who, for over forty years, has been obsessed by the woman who left him for another man. Hardly a day has gone by that he has not relived the moment that his young wife came to him and told him that she was carrying another man’s baby. Now he is sixty-five years old, recently retired back to England, and finds that he cannot get the woman out of his mind even though he has not spoken to her since their divorce.

Should he surprise her with a phone call? Is she even still alive? What about the man she married – is he dead now? Where does she live? These are the thoughts and questions that dominate his days, and a simple check of the local phone book covering the area of the last address he remembers for his ex-wife answers some of them. Not only is she still alive, she is living in the same house she and her second husband first moved into, and the phone is listed in her name only, giving him hope that her husband is now dead.

Unable to resist the pull of that home address, he discovers a wooded area behind her house that includes a trail used by commuters to get from the local train station to their front doors. Already teetering on the edge of insanity, he sits himself down on a bench conveniently placed along the trail to see if she might come along one day. And she does. Or does she?

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Ruth Rendell

“A Dark Blue Perfume” is typical of Ruth Rendell’s crime fiction in the sense that she was always more interested in what makes a criminal do the things he does than in the crime itself. In this story, the author places the reader firmly into the head of a man who can think of only one thing: being rejected for another man by the only woman he ever really loved. The rejection may have occurred four decades earlier, but the pain he feels is as fresh today as the day it happened to him all those years ago. The reader senses that something has to give, that the man is on the brink of doing something crazy that he will regret, but we are just along for the ride he takes us on.

This little nine-page story has all the makings of a movie from another master of psychological suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. It would have been a good one.

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