Ah, Ruth Rendell. There was a period about 15 years ago when every time I went to the library, I left with a Rendell novel. She’s that prolific, and that reliable. Even when she’s not at her best, I can’t put her books down. Such was the case with her newest (and 60th) psychological crime novel, Tigerlily’s Orchids. It’s a good book, but nowhere near Rendell’s best.
The novel is set almost entirely on a single street in North London, with most of the action focused on a single building. The residents include three college girls who share a flat, a woman determined to drink herself to death, two former hippies, a young doctor who writes a medical advice column of questionable worth, a young man enjoying a lavish inheritance, and the building’s pedophile caretaker and his wife. Across the street, a retired widower watches the residents come and go. Also in his sight is the beautiful Tigerlily, a young Asian woman who quite literally lives in a “hot house.”
Rendell paints all these characters with a deft, practiced hand. We gradually learn what the characters think of each other and what they think of themselves. She puts readers right into these people’s heads, so we experience their warped logic and self-justifications, even as we see the problems in their thinking. This brilliant characterization is what keeps me coming back to Rendell again and again. Particularly affecting in Tigerlily’s Orchids is Olwen, the alcoholic who for years has yearned to be left on her own so she could commit to full-time drinking. Less compelling, but equally important, is Stuart, the young man in Flat 1. Stuart is having an affair with a woman named Claudia, and it quickly becomes apparent that this affair has the potential to deplete his bank account, if her husband doesn’t get to him first. But Stuart is a rash young man, and he does what feels right in the moment, only considering the consequences afterward.
Because this is a Ruth Rendell novel, we know something bad is going to happen; and with this cast, the possibilities are legion. It’s not until halfway through the book that the murder occurs (and I’m not going to even reveal the victim because that’s part of the mystery). Even once the murder occurs, the book doesn’t follow the usual crime novel pattern of focusing on an investigation, with suspects and clues. There are suspects, and there are clues, but they just become part of the fabric of this little community, one more ingredient in their lives. For some, the murder hardly matters at all. In fact, there are only a couple of moments that I would even call edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. Rendell just doesn’t operate that way, and I love her for it.
So yes, this is a good book, but it’s far from Rendell’s best. The large cast ends up working against her because there are too many characters to get involved with. Several characters could be cut entirely without any harm to the plot or even to the emotional thrust of the book. Her plotting is usually pretty tight, but the excess characters made Tigerlily’s Orchids feel flabby. Also, a couple of characters who end up being central to the crime are barely painted in at all, so the resolution feels somewhat anti-climactic.
If you’re already a Rendell fan, chances are you’ll like this fine. It is, after all, Rendell-esque. You may even like it if you’re new to Rendell’s work. The characterizations are often quite marvelous. But if you want to try her out for the first time, I’d recommend instead any of the books she wrote as Barbara Vine (I’ve read all but two or three of those), most especially A Fatal Inversion or Anna’s Book [Asta’s Book in the UK]. Under her own name, I remember liking The Tree of Hands, The Crocodile Bird, and Thirteen Steps Down (although I don’t remember the details about these). I’m less fond of her Inspector Wexford books, which are more like traditional whodunits but sometimes rely too much on tricks for my taste. [Edited to add a couple of lines of missing text that got eaten at the last minute before posting.]
Now I’m feeling the urge to go on a Rendell read/reread binge. At the very least, I ought to get back in the habit of checking out the R section of the library.