Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Soft Spot by Ian Rankin

“Soft Spot” by Ian Rankin, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

Dennis, the main character of this story, is a prison guard in HMP Edinburgh who has worked his way up the ladder to the position of prison censor. All the letters prisoners write, and all they receive, pass through his office. He reads each and every one, cutting out offending words and passages with a razor blade, devouring the pictures sent by wives and girlfriends before passing them on.

But Dennis isn’t content with just reading the letters. He copies the ones that interest him, the ones dealing with relationships, and adds them to his private files at home. You see, Dennis has a thing about relationships; has had since his wife left him ten years ago. Dennis is often tempted to involve himself in those relationships by offering advice, but so far has resisted the temptation.

One particular relationship interests Dennis particularly. Paul Blaine was a big time gangster on the outside. On the inside he is de facto leader of the inmate population. Blaine has a beautiful, much younger wife, Selina. From his letters Blaine seems very much in love with her. She also seems to be hopelessly in love with him, writing steamy and graphic letters. But Dennis thinks she is shamming. He believes that she is a gold-digger looking to take off with Blaine’s money.

This time he can’t stop himself from becoming personally involved. The whole situation is just too juicy. He starts following her on the weekends. He sees her hobnobbing with Fred, one of Blaine’s lieutenants. They seem quite chummy. In one of her letters, Selina had told Blaine that Fred was on an extended trip up north. Then one day a for-sale sign appears in front of her house.

That is the confirming act. Her letters have said nothing about selling the house. Dennis is sure she is going away. He doesn’t want her to go away. He wants her to continue to write and visit her husband. After all, as long as she is around, Dennis might have some chance of becoming involved with her personally.

Dennis decides that he has to tell Blaine what is really going on. The results are surprising.

Mr. Rankin does an excellent job in building up Dennis’s character. Dennis is a passive voyeur who, through a gradual progression, becomes so obsessed with his subject matter that he has to take action. Mr. Rankin also does a fine job in setting up the final scenes. When you read the ending you can think back and see exactly where the setups were: words, phrases and situations that you paid no attention to when you read the story, but without which the story would have been unbelievable.

In short, an excellent story with an unexpected twist.