Category Archives: Rendell, Ruth

The Thief: Ruth Rendell

My copy of The Thief, which has rather large print, is a morality tale about a young woman named Polly, who learns, as a child, that theft can be a way of exacting revenge. When we first meet Polly, she is 8 years old. Following Polly’s refusal to listen to her aunt, Polly is pulled aside and smacked for her behaviour. This is all done in a rather odd pathological manner, with the aunt leading Polly away, promising to “show” Polly something. Without speaking a word, Auntie Pauline smacks Polly “hard, ten sharp blows across her bottom.” Polly doesn’t tell her mother but instead, in revenge, Polly steals one of her aunt’s library books. …

Freud would probably love that story: Polly’s aunt doesn’t tell Polly WHY she’s smacking her and the incident is never addressed. It’s tucked away neatly into Polly’s psyche and theft becomes a rewarding way of behaving whenever Polly is upset, humiliated or thwarted. It’s a covert way of getting her own back. A method of empowerment.

In adulthood, Polly doesn’t mend her ways … that is until she meets Alex:

She mostly told him the truth. It wasn’t hard to be truthful with him.

He is making me a better person, she said to herself.

Polly flies to New York to attend a wedding and is unfortunate enough to sit next to an obnoxious man called Trevor Lant. He’s a nightmare passenger and these days would be thrown off the plane (serve him right too). He makes a nuisance of himself and then hits on Polly. When she dismisses his advances, Trevor humiliates her, making her journey hell, but what’s even worse, he’s there on the plane for the return trip.

Faced with Trevor’s aggression, Polly strikes back and she reverts to her old behaviour. When the opportunity arises, she steals Trevor’s suitcase. …

Due to the short length of the story, events pile upon each other rapidly. This is not Rendell’s best work but should appeal to fans. Rendell is fascinated with the motivations for crimes, the dirty little secrets that spill out despite efforts to contain and control them. In The Thief, Polly finds it easier to revert to her old behaviours, and then once she is on that old, well-trodden path, she finds it impossible to find another way. In the past Polly has dealt with people by stealing (and lies), and all of these incidents have ended with Polly feeling a hollow triumph, but this time, she crosses paths with someone who makes her look like an amateur.

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Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell

In common with many of this author’s other stand-alone novels of psychological suspense, Dark Corners traces the destructive connecting paths of a handful of characters. In this book, Rendell’s characters connect over a large house in Falcon Mews, Maida Vale inherited by 23-year-old writer, Carl Martin. Carl can’t believe his luck when he inherits the house; he’s just published his first crime book, Death’s Door, and hopes this is just the beginning of a long career. Renting out the top floor of the house, which is located in a very desirable area, will allow him to fund his life until his writing career takes off. Without much care, faced with twenty applicants, he accepts the very first one–Dermot, a rather unpleasant character who works at Sutherland Pet Clinic. Although Dermot seems to be the perfect tenant, quiet and single, Carl doesn’t particularly care for Dermot, but then he has no intention of being Dermot’s friend.

The plot thickens when Carl’s childhood friend, Stacey Warren, now a sitcom actress who has put on a lot of weight, begins complaining to Carl about her figure. Stacey, who has begun a cycle of eating to fill an emotional void, doesn’t want to “starve” herself and instead wants to try diet pills. As fate would have it, Carl has a stash at home:

For many years Wilfred Martin collected samples of alterative medicines, homeopathic remedies, and herbal pills. Most of them he never used, never even tried because he was afraid of them, but he kept the lot in a cupboard in a bathroom.

Carl never got around to throwing out all this old “junk” and on page one we’re told that this was a bad decision.

If he had known how it, or one particular item among all the rest, would change his life, transform it, ruin it, he would have emptied the lot into a plastic bag, carried the bag down the road, and dumped it in the big rubbish bin.

So right away Carl makes a couple of bad decisions (keeping the diet pills, and picking a creepy tenant), and he continues to make bad decisions throughout the book. Some of these bad decisions can be chalked up to youth and inexperience, and Carl, faced with an untenable situation in his home, becomes increasingly paranoid. Through a series of missteps which are permeated with guilt, he sinks into isolation, a dark corner,

Dark cornersStory threads that connect in some way to Carl include various secondary characters. There’s a pathological liar, the opportunistic Lizzie who has a slight acquaintance with Stacey, the sitcom actress, and Lizzie’s retired father, Tom, whose new hobby, riding buses on his free bus pass leads to some difficult experiences. There’s also Carl’s girlfriend Nicola, and Dermot’s creepy fiancée. The threads concerning Tom seemed a little disconnected to the main storyline–although Tom’s recognition, and avoidance, of his daughter’s behaviour are well done.

Since her late teens, when Tom had expected Lizzie to change, to grow up and behave, he had viewed his daughter with a sinking heart, only briefly pleased when she got into what she called “uni.” But her degree in media studies was the lowest grade possible while still remaining a BA. Gradually, as she moved from one pathetic job to another, ending up with the one she had now–teaching assistant, alternating with playground supervisor of after-school five -year-olds killing time until a parent came to collect them–he felt for his daughter that no father should feel: a kind of sorrowful contempt. He had sometimes heard parents say of their child that they loved her but didn’t like her and wondered at this attitude. He no longer wondered; he knew. Walking into the house in Mamhead Drive, he asked himself what lie she would tell that evening, and how many justifications for her behaviour she would trot out.

The novel examines Carl’s growing paranoia and the utter loneliness he experiences. Hugging a nasty secret to himself, he becomes convinced that murder is the only option. Dark Corners argues that the corrosive qualities of guilt are unbearable–at least for the normal person who has any sort of conscience. Committing murder is a solitary path to take–other crimes (such as those committed by Lizzie) offer a return ticket, but murder is an irrevocable one way trip for both the victim and the killer.

It’s a bitter-sweet experience to read Ruth Rendell’s last novel, Dark Corners, published after her death. We’ll never again read an Inspector Wexford novel and return to those much loved characters from Kingsmarkham. While Dark Corners is certainly highly readable and completed, there’s a feeling that it’s not quite as polished as her other novels, but for fans, this novel is still a last gift. Ruth Rendell has provided millions of readers with wonderful crime books for decades. Here in this final novel, Rendell includes topical subjects such as the last book shop “for miles around“, the demise of small business, the prevalence of questionable supplements, and terrorism.

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No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Wexford is back in No Man’s Nightingale, the 24th novel in the Wexford series from British author Ruth Rendell. When the book opens, Wexford is firmly entrenched in retirement and working his way through Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This makes him a sitting duck for the annoying, gossipy cleaner, Maxine, so when he’s called in as a civilian by his old protégé, Detective Superintendent Mike Burden who’s investigating a murder case, Wexford gladly sets Gibbon aside and begins sleuthing. The local vicar, a mixed race widow, a single parent named Sarah Hussain has been strangled at the vicarage. Since there’s no sign of a break-in, it’s assumed that she knew her killer. Sarah was a controversial figure, progressive in her attitudes and approach to the parishioners, and she made many enemies in the conservative town of Kingsmarkham. But there’s also the possibility that the killer was someone from Sarah’s murky past. The issues of racism and sexism are raised repeatedly throughout the story, and both Burden and Wexford self-correct their attitudes at several points.

No man's nightingaleEven as he sympathizes with Burden’s wariness of the press and the pressures of the job, Wexford finds himself at odds with many of Burden’s conclusions, and so while Burden pursues one line of inquiry, Wexford goes in another direction. The two men regroup and exchange notes throughout the novel, and as the case wears on, the divide between Burden and Wexford widens. There’s even a few moments when Wexford finds himself rather pettily launching snide comments at Burden, and even though Wexford is aware of it, there’s part of him that can’t help sinking to that level.

Ruth Rendell excels at creating social situations that explode into violence as the pressure builds, and here there’s a sub-plot involving the Wexford’s cleaner, Maxine. This situation presents Wexford with a moral dilemma in which he must weigh the consequences of betraying a confidence: “Crises of conscience, if that was the way to put them, had never come his way before, or not to such an extent.” The dilemma reinforces the fact that Wexford is no longer a policeman. People confide in him in ways that they would not consider if he was still actively employed as a detective. This is something that Wexford is still trying to adjust to, as we see throughout the novel. Also during the course of his unofficial investigation, he steps into two entirely different marriages, and because he doesn’t have the barrier of ‘authority,’ he’s made privy to the inner workings of two completely toxic relationships.

When for years you have had authority, it is hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stayed disappeared.

As in other Wexford novels, we see glimpses of Wexford’s family–daughter Sheila in London is not involved in this story, but Wexford’s troubled daughter Sylvia and her son Robin are present and become involved with the murdered woman’s daughter, Clarissa. Wexford’s wife, Dora is also here as the bastion of tolerance and support, but even she is pushed to annoyance by her husband’s refusal to let go of his former life as a policeman.

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the book–some readers enjoyed it and others felt that it is time to let Wexford ‘retire.’ The murder aspect of the novel is flawed; the question of exactly who killed Sarah Hussain is, of course, pursued until the end of the novel, but as a character, she remains murky, and the final element involving Clarissa seemed a little too forced given the earlier build-up.

In spite of the book’s flaws, for this reader, picking up a Rendell novel is like returning to an old friend. No Man’s Nightingale is really more about Wexford than the solution of the murder, and I liked that approach as, after all, Wexford is a major character for Rendell. Here we see him in retirement, and as a result of a life devoted to police work, he has zero hobbies beyond reading. Dora has a social life, and the point is made in the novel that she knows Kingsmarkham residents that her husband does not. Wexford has an enormous adjustment to make–he is no longer a figure of authority, he is no longer to be feared, and he can no longer lead an investigation, so he must sit back and watch as the police manage the investigation badly and people die as a result. The complexities of the relationship between Burden and Wexford are seen through the mentor-protégé prism which has now shifted leaving many uncomfortable moments. Wexford itches to order Burden to pursue a particular angle in the investigation, but he cannot, so instead Wexford is reduced to responding with nasty, almost, ‘I told you so’ comments. At various points in the novel, he’s forced to confront some uncomfortable facts–he finds himself calling a witness into question as it “was well-known that elderly people’s memories often behaved in a peculiar way,” and yet this man is a contemporary of Wexford’s. Ultimately, No Man’s Nightingale is about aging and letting go, gracefully, and as always, Wexford has one eye on the game, and one eye on himself, so he reflects about his life with his usual wise observations.

Strange, Wexford thought, how words which when uttered or written pierced to one’s very soul could later on not just be reflected on with wry humour but actually make one laugh.

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The Child’s Child by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

The remarkable Ruth Rendell at 82 is still writing, and here’s her latest, The Child’s Child, a book written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, which examines prejudices against homosexuality and illegitimacy. This metafiction story, a novel within a novel, begins with the narration by a 28 year-old PhD student, Grace, who is given a privately published manuscript by a friend who wants her to evaluate whether or not it’s worth publishing. The manuscript was written in the 1950s by an author who had published a respectable number of books, but hesitated to publish The Child’s Child for two reasons: its controversial themes (homosexuality which was still illegal at the time) and the fact that the story was based on real events which concerned individuals who were still alive. Now it’s 2011, the author of The Child’s Child is dead, and his son asks Grace to evaluate the novel and give her opinion. Since the book’s themes are illegitimacy and homosexuality, Grace agrees to take the book–after all her PhD thesis is on illegitimacy in English Literature.

the childs childGrace lives in a huge house in Hampstead which she and her gay 30-year-old brother, Andrew co-inherited from their grandmother. They were expected to “do the sensible thing, the practical thing: sell it and divide the proceeds.” But Grace and Andrew, who are very close, take the unexpected option and decide to live in Dinmont House  together, dividing up the rooms and sharing the kitchen. It’s a wonderful arrangement until Andrew brings home his lover, novelist James Derain, and it’s at this point that things begin to sour….

James has rather strong feelings about the unpublished book The Child’s Child. Although the names of the characters have been changed, the story concerns his “uncle or great uncle,” and one night a rather ugly and pointless argument erupts over who was treated worse by 19th century society:  women or homosexuals. Since Grace PhD’s thesis is concerned with illegitimacy, she argues: “if gay men killed themselves from fear of discovery, so did [pregnant] young women dreading disgrace.” Rendell is particularly good at creating toxic crucibles of personality, and that is true here. Tension builds in the house, but soon all of that is swept aside when events show that in some sectors of society, attitudes towards homosexuality are still hateful, archaic and a throw-back to the early 20th century.

At page 69 of my review copy, Grace finally picks up and starts reading the novel The Child’s Child. It’s the story beginning in 1929 of John, a young homosexual man who shields his sister, Maud, and her illegitimate baby from society at terrible cost to himself. John’s choices are to live a homosexual life in secret or to become celibate, and he tries both with tragic results. The story of the lengths John goes to in an attempt to protect himself and his sister offer a glimpse into an intolerant cruel world of 1920s-1950s Britain. Back in the present, James argues that historically, unmarried women need “only to put on a wedding ring and they’d be alright,” whereas homosexuals were “ostracized, attacked, killed.” John and Maud’s story shows that putting a wedding ring on a woman’s finger didn’t solve the social problems faced by a woman with an illegitimate child, and while in 2011  illegitimacy no longer carries a such a stigma, there are dark, violent recesses of society that still instill fear in the homosexual community. As a result Ruth Rendell’s novel, a call for tolerance and acceptance, shows that the placing of social stigmas for illegitimacy and the discrimination of homosexuality leaves people vulnerable to criminals–this was true in the 1920s Britain depicted in the novel and unfortunately it’s still true today.

Grace’s ruminations of the treatment of illegitimacy in 19th century British literature are a delight for anyone interested in the period. There are literary allusions galore of the novels of Trollope, Hardy, Gaskell, George Eliot, Austen, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, so if you don’t have at least some familiarity with the plots of these novels, readers may be a bit lost for a few pages. On the other hand, lovers of Victorian literature will positively wallow at the mention of some of the great titles:

Ruth isn’t a slow read, it’s an almost compulsive read, and I raced through the early chapters. What struck me was that while those other novels are about other things as well, have subplots and  interwoven stories, Ruth is concerned entirely with seduction and illegitimacy. Hardy’s Tess has the courtship of Angel Clare and marriage to him; Wilkie Collins’s No Name and The Woman in White are much more involved with the legal aspects; Hetty Sorrell’s history is important but still subservient to Dinah’s work and religion and to the Bede family’s way of life. So here I was in Verity’s study learning exactly what it was really like to know one is pregnant by a faithless lover, to put on a wedding ring and call oneself “Mrs.,” yet ultimately deceiving no one. Every character in Ruth believes she has committed a terrible sin, even the sympathetic ones, the kindly ones who take her in and share what little they have with her, even they speak in hushed tones of her sin and her “crime.”

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The St .Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

Picking up a Ruth Rendell novel feels as though I am returning to an old friend. I know, more or less, what to expect, and I am delighted to be in this author’s company. Ruth Rendell seems to excel in creating fictional spaces, uniquely malignant cauldrons in which the fouler aspects of human behaviour breed and simmer before exploding into crime. In the novel Portobello, I had a niggling concern about snobbery through the delineation of the poor vs the rich characters with criminal behaviour landing solidly on the former, but Rendell has irrevocably swept that aside in The St. Zita Society, a psychological crime novel in which the servants and various hangers-on of the rich rub elbows with their employers in the upscale houses of Hexam Place. It’s in this unhealthy environment that violent death makes its appearance.  

The St. Zita Society (named after the patron saint of “domestic servants“) is formed by June Caldwell, the companion of the autocratic, petulant, self-invented woman who calls herself Her Serene Highness, the Princess Susan Hapsburg. The two women have lived together for sixty years, and June is HSH’s servant, companion, dog-walker, secretary and the recipient of all of her employer’s moods and temper tantrums. It’s very likely that this is the reason that June, now 78-years-old forms the society which holds its meetings at the local pub. Eligible for membership are the servants who work in the swanky addresses of Hexam Place, and June’s intention is that the St. Zita Society will give the servants some sort of clout, but in reality, the society is June’s attempt to make her own life more tolerable.

The servants include: cleaner Zinnia who splits her time at several homes, Dex the “criminally insane” and now certified cured, gardener-for-hire who believes that the voice in his cell phone gives him orders, Thea who rents a Hexam Place flat and is misused and underappreciated by her landlords, Henry, the chauffeur of Lord and Lady Studley, whose after hours duties include secretly servicing the very attractive and neglected Lady Dudley, Monserrat, the unpleasant au pair to the troubled Still family, Rabia, the Still’s Muslim nanny, and Jimmy the driver to Dr. Jefferson.

While June is intent on addressing “human rights,” there are other items on the St. Zita agenda–including dog feces left by those passing through the neighbourhood. Of course, since the servants are the ones cleaning up the dog poo, they are the ones who want the council to ‘do something.’ Meanwhile the homeowners are oblivious. This tiny subject of disgruntlement is the epitome of the division between the worlds of the wealthy and those they employ to make their lives run smoother. It’s an unhealthy relationship, even at the best of times, and we see some servants taking advantage of their employer’s good nature (Jimmy), and others taking advantage of their employer’s lack of interest (Monserrat). Of course, others are worked beyond reason, and June seems to be the most put-upon partly due to her age, her lack of choices and her tyrannical employer.

Monserrat comes from the same sort of privileged background as her employer, and she deeply resents her position as a servant for people she simultaneously envies and despises.  She’s facilitating her employer, Lucy Still’s affair and accepts ‘tips’ to keep her mouth shut about it.

Monserrat knew all about it. She made it her business to know who was having an affair with whom, who was skiving off, and who was borrowing a Beemer or a Jaguar when such a loan was strictly forbidden. She had never blackmailed anyone, but she liked to keep the possibility of a modified sort of blackmail in reserve. The only friend she had in Hexam Place was Thea, and the only member of the St. Zita Society who possessed a car of their own was herself, keeping her rather old VW in a garage in the mews that belonged to number seven.

It’s no coincidence that Thea is Monserrat’s only friend as Monserrat does not considers herself a servant and has little in common with the other employees of Hexam Place. Monserrat doesn’t slot easily into the servant-master dynamic; her father went to school with Lucy Still’s father and at one time, they were both wealthy men. Monserrat’s father lost all his money in “some banking scandal,” and Monserrat is given the job as the Still’s au pair as a favour to a friend. Monserrat is opportunistic and resentful and can’t help but notice that her employer, Lucy Still, has a relatively cushy life full of designer shopping, jogging, and an affair.  Thea isn’t a servant, but she is a doormat and she’s treated badly by her landlords. While she struggles against this role, she seems unable to alter it. Interestingly, these two characters, Thea and Monserrat, are connected by fate.

The St. Zita Society covers just a few months of the lives of those who live in Hexam Place–from Autumn to Spring. Marriages melt down, adultery runs rampant, and with a slow-building menace brewing, murder is the inevitable result.

Rendell argues that we know little about what goes on the house next door, and the book is a strong statement regarding the inherently unhealthy relationship between employer/master and servant. It’s a relationship that breeds familiarity, abuses and resentments on all sides. Some of the book’s scenes highlight the inherent fragility and hypocrisy of the relationships between the characters. A few visits from June’s famous soap opera nephew, Rad Sothern, sets Her Serene Highness reeling, and yet while HSH treats Rad coquettishly, like some ardent suitor, the Princess never shifts an inch in the treatment of Rad’s aunt, June, so some awkward evenings are spent with an unpleasant hierarchy between the three characters.

Ruth Rendell  is no stranger to the theme of the complex and difficult relationships between servants and those who employ them. A Judgement in Stone, considered one of this author’s finest psychological crime novels explores the twisted relationship between the affluent Cloverdale family and their psychotic housekeeper Eunice Parchment.

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The Vault by Ruth Rendell

While I am a self-acknowledged fan of Ruth Rendell’s psychological stand-alone novels, I have also read and enjoyed a number of Inspector Wexford mysteries. The Vault, Rendell’s latest, and one of the best I’ve read in the Wexford series, finds Chief Inspector Wexford now retired and with his wife Dora, splitting his time between Kingsmarkham and London. 

 Rendell’s long acquaintance with Wexford’s character proves to be a worthy journey in The Vault, and through the smoothness of the narrative along with the details of Wexford’s inner life, there’s the sense that the author and her long-standing character are old, familiar friends.

A rather nasty police case finds Wexford, not unwillingly, back involved in police work. Wexford runs into Detective Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met.–a chance meeting, but it results in the rather circumspect Ede asking Wexford if he’d be interested in acting as an “expert advisor” in the Orcadia Place case. Wexford, who’s been trying to read Booker prize-winning novels in order to pass his time in a meaningful way, is excited by the prospect, and so he agrees.

The Orcadia Place case is both notorious and a bit of a puzzle. The Rokebys, the owners of Orcadia Cottage (“a sizable detached house” in an expensive neighbourhood) discovered a manhole cover on the grounds on their home. Rokeby had previously had a number of architects and workmen out to his property to assess the viability of building an underground room. Planning permission was refused, so Rokeby’s plans came to nought, but when Rokeby spied the manhole cover (previously covered with a planter), he opened it and looked inside. He saw a small coal room, and inside the room were four bodies. As Ede explains to Wexford:

The manhole cover wasn’t heavy. He lifted it off, and instead of the drain or drainpipe he expected, leading away into the mews, he found himself looking down into a black hole. At the bottom was something he couldn’t properly see apart from a kind of shininess that seemed to be a sheet of plastic. That was covering a multitude of sins, but he didn’t know it then.

Now before he did anything more, he went into the house and fetched his wife. The two of them looked down into the darkness and at the shiny thing and what looked–he said they could just about see it–like a woman’s shoe.

Enter the police. The biggest mystery about the four bodies is that it’s clear, from the decomposition, that the four people were not killed at the same time. Three of the bodies–an older woman, an older man, and a young man, appear to have been dead, according to the pathologist, for somewhere between 11-13 years. The fourth body in “the vault” as Wexford calls the coal room, has been there for only about 2 years. To top off the mystery, there’s about 40,000 in jewelry with the bodies. How can four people go missing and no one notice? Did the same killer kill all 4 victims and use the coal room as a tomb? How can the Rokebys, who were apparently in residence during the last murder, not know anything? And what about all the teams of architects and builders that poked around? 

There’s a lot here for Wexford to mull over, and he’s more or less left to his own devices to investigate. Since he is no longer a policeman, he’s occasionally lent a young PC to accompany him with his hunt for information. During the course of his investigation, Wexford learns how to use the internet for research and he also sends his first e-mail. 

Since this is a series character, there are also considerable developments in Wexford’s private life. Tragedy strikes and then the limits of family tolerance are strained when Wexford’s divorced daughter Sylvia shows a disappointing lack of acknowledged responsibility, remorse and sensitivity for the events that takes place.  Wexford reevaluates his role as a parent:

Dora had been right and he had been wrong, he thought. Keeping aloof from all this, taking no stand, avoiding judgment, that was all wrong. A parent should speak out, no matter what age his child was, no matter what reputation he had achieved as a tolerant and never moralistic arbiter.

Wexford also discovers that he’s not fond of some aspects of Ede’s character, and this makes him miss Burden, his old sidekick from Kingsmarkham. Ede is fond of using clichés and while this makes Wexford wince at first, he discovers the usefulness of clichés as the story spins out. 

Possibly the most enjoyable aspects of this Wexford novel are the characters he runs into through the course of the investigation. Orcadia Cottage is in a rather swanky area, and Wexford must question some of the neighbours–one of whom– is a repulsively snobby woman, Mildred Jones, also known as Old Mildreadful. Mildred employs a string of illegal girls at sub-wages, and then fires them when she returns to S. Africa. At one point, she even tells  Wexford off for thanking her latest domestic slave for making him a cup of tea. According to Mildred, “It doesn’t do to talk to them like you knew her socially. Do it just once and they start taking advantage.” The fact that Mildred pays a pittance and takes advantage of the fact that illegals have little recourse, escapes this crass, mean-spirited, snob:

Just because I live here–in a whole house, I mean, in St. John’s Wood–and because I got to South Africa every year, people think I’m rolling in money. Let me tell you, I got this flat under our divorce settlement, and that was all I got. Colin got our place in the country and I never had a penny out of him. He sold that house and got enough from it to buy a place on Clapham Common. I have to live on my investments, and you know what that means in a recession. It was all I could do to afford the air fare to Cape Town and then I couldn’t afford first class.

In typical Rendell fashion, the journey to the solution of the crime is one of the best aspects of the tale, and this is manifested in the way Wexford enters people’s lives. Through his eyes we see a range of living arrangements, some happy, some chaotic, and many extremely unhappy. Wexford walks away depressed from some encounters and alternately, he’s happy when he finds a genuinely content couple.

The Vault is actually a sequel to the 1998 novel A Sight for Sore Eyes, but it didn’t seem to matter (and may actually have been a good thing) that I didn’t read the earlier book. It apparently ends with bodies in the coal cellar.

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Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell

“Many people lead virtuous lives not because they resist temptation, but because temptation never comes their way.”

As a long-time fan of Ruth Rendell, I am always ready to grab her latest book, so fast on the heels of Portobello comes another stand-alone tale, Tigerlily’s Orchids. Just as Portobello focused on the occupants of a particular neighbourhood, Tigerlily’s Orchids concentrates on the residents of the flats of Lichfield House in the outer suburbs of London.

The newest resident of the flats in Stuart Font, a fortunate young man in many ways. He has the looks of a male model (and the vanity to match) and he’s just inherited 400,000 pounds from an eccentric great-aunt. While Stuart’s parents urge their son to get a job (and even send possible employment his way), Stuart has other plans. Against his parents’ advice to wait out the falling home prices, he spends half the inheritance on a flat in Lichfield house. With the rest of the money, he intends to be a gentleman of leisure and perhaps take a year or two before seeking employment. His plans are complicated by the fact he has an expensive lover–Claudia, a deputy fashion editor for a newspaper. She expects to be taken to the best restaurants and even at one point manoeuvres the purchase of a necklace for a mere 1000 pounds. One of the reasons Stuart is disinclined to work is so that he can continue his complicated affair with Claudia, and that means he needs to keep his days free so that they can spend them in bed together while her husband is at work.

When the book begins, Stuart is planning a house-warming party, and he’s drawing up a guest list that will include all the other residents: three single female students, Dr. Michael Constantine and his wife, a couple of middle-aged singles,  Marius Potter, Rose Preston-Jones, and Olwen, a sixty year old alcoholic. Also in attendance will be a couple of Stuart’s friends, the building’s caretaker and his buxom wife and an assortment of neighbours. As it turns out, the party is a significant occasion that ends badly.

The novel establishes a growing sense of malignancy which is coupled with the idea that no one will emerge unscathed from the events that take place. To describe Tigerlily’s Orchids as a crime novel is to ignore the subtle nuances of the plot, for while many crimes take place in these pages, not all of these crimes can be labelled neatly with a perp and a victim. Rendell’s characters are considered normal people–the sort of people we know and work with. A fair number of the characters have something or another to be ashamed about, and the crimes in these pages run the gamut from murder to enabling addiction. In Portobello, addiction played a role (the main character was addicted to diet sweets), and in Tigerlily’s Orchids we see the same sort of behaviours: addiction coupled with obsession. While Olwen’s addiction to alcohol moves blindly forward, gathering momentum as the book continues, it becomes clear that many other characters suffer from dangerous obsessions. Stuart is obsessed with his lover, Claudia, but eventually those roles as reversed, but there are several other obsessions afoot. And these obsessions, as Rendell so deliciously shows, blind the various characters to reality with catastrophic results. Dr. Michael Constantine, for example, is a non-practicing physician who writes a column. His obsession with crushing any sort of non-medical treatments through his writing takes him on a one-way ticket to unemployment as he refuses to even consider any other point of view.

By far my favourite character is Olwen:

Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.

Olwen has given up on relationships and humanity in general. She doesn’t want human communication. Instead she’s locked in a tango of death with alcohol. She’s devised a way of coping with people–especially people who preach to her or try to get in the way of her addiction. Her main, practically only, response to anyone is “not really”:

Olwen had long ago discovered that this was a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?’ and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible.

Rendell proceeds to show just how that phrase “not really” works so well for Olwen’s desire to alienate people. Think I might try it out.

The lives of Rendell’s characters are set against the economic downturn, and the action reflects the changes. As shops close or hold desperate sales, the characters respond accordingly. The recession impacts the characters’ relationships, and it certainly turns up the heat. In one scene, Stuart loads up on furniture from a local shop. He doesn’t particularly like the stuff he buys but it’s on sale, and he can’t resist buying a mirror for the vanity feedback it offers.

Tigerlily’s Orchids explores the horrors of suburbia, and here Rendell creates a neighbourhood crucible, adding just enough of the ingredients–passion, jealousy, and obsession until she achieves combustion. While The Tree of Hands is my favourite Rendell (and I doubt it’ll ever be supplanted), Tigerlily’s Orchids is a welcome return to this author.

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