Tigerlily’s Orchids

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.

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24 Responses to Tigerlily’s Orchids

  1. Deb says:

    I love Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine; but I would recommend someone who is new to her work and is looking for traditional British murder-mysteries to read the Inspector Rexford books (written as “Ruth Rendell”) because they are superlative examples of that genre. If you’re looking for more psychological suspense, the books Rendell wrote as “Barbara Vine” (or any of Rendell’s non-Wexford books, written by “Ruth Rendell”) would be great to read. In addition to the books you mentioned, I would recommend A DARK-ADAPTED EYE (written as Barbara Vine) and THE BRIDESMAID (written as Ruth Rendell) for some wonderfully-intricate, exceptionally-well-plotted novels of of the twists and turns of the human mind.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought I had mentioned the Wexford books, but apparently a couple of lines of my post got eaten when I was fine tuning before posting. Argh! I’ve restored those now.

      Yes, for anyone looking for traditional whodunits, those are a good place to start (even though I’m not wild about them myself). And Dark-Adapted Eye is another good one! I think I’ve read and enjoyed The Bridesmaid. I was reading so many, so quickly at one time that they’re all kind of a blur.

  2. I have not read any of her books under any name! (mine or hers!) But one could, you know, draw the conclusion from your second sentence that rather than Rendell being prolific, the truth was actually that you rarely went to the library! (at least until we get to the sentence about sixty psychological crime novels, anyway). I should try these, although I’m sort of afraid. I’m so obsessive. Suppose I suddenly have to add SIXTY books to my TBR?!!!

    • Teresa says:

      My Rendell phase was also during the time when I drove past three libraries on my way to and from work. I was in them a lot!

      And as a crime fiction fan, you must try Rendell. Here’s what you do. Forget right now that Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine are the same person and try a Barbara Vine novel. There are only maybe 15 of those. When you finish those, you can turn to either the standalone Rendells or the Wexfords. Just pretend the others don’t exist, and it’s less daunting!

  3. Frances says:

    I went through a similar phase with her books. My god – 60 books? Prolific beyond belief. My favorites are of course the Inspector Wexford books, and have to admit that A Sight for Sore Eyes chilled me to the bone. Rendell is especially gifted at those characterizations as you say especially when portraying so calmly a person’s casual embrace of extreme violence.

    • Teresa says:

      Sixty books is unbelievable isn’t it? And they’re still quite good! Thirteen Steps Down was just a couple of years ago, and I loved it! I can’t remember if I’ve read A Sight for Sore Eyes. I think I have, but I just looked it up, and the plot isn’t familiar. That’s the trouble with author binges (especially preblog).

      I used to read the Wexfords and enjoyed some of them, but I had a run of ones with endings that annoyed me, so I quit reading them. I’m really picky about detective fiction.

  4. Karen K. says:

    How funny — I discovered Vine/Rendell about the same time period and read TONS of them, same as you! My first was Anna’s Book which I still find one of her best. Lately I’ve been less impressed with the Barbara Vines than with the Rendells — even though they’re straightforward mysteries, they’re still very well done.

    • Teresa says:

      I think An Unkindess of Ravens was my first, I read Anna’s Book pretty early on. I actually have a funny story about that one. I bought it in a used bookstore, and the woman who sold it to me was so excited that I was buying it that she followed me out of the store to keep talking with me. And then she urged me to bring it back when I was done so someone else could read it and so I could tell her what I thought!

      And I agree about the recent books. Some of the recent standalone Rendells have rivaled the early Vines. (Not this one, but definitely Thirteen Steps Down, The Water’s Lovely, and The Rottweiler.) But the most recent Vine that I read (The Minotaur) was not up to her usual standard.

  5. Lisa says:

    The most recent Barbara Vine published is The Birthday Present, and I tound it so unpleasant that I didn’t finish it. But I found her other books amazing, starting with Grasshopper and including of course Asta’s Book, which I think is the best of the Vine books. I’ve read a couple of Ruth Rendell books, but I didn’t have the same OMG reaction to them.

    • Teresa says:

      I never did get around to The Birthday Present, but I did love Grasshopper. (Really I’ve loved all the Vines I’ve read except The Minotaur, which I only liked.) I think the recent non-Wexford Rendells are feeling more Vine-like.

  6. Steph says:

    You know that I love a mystery, though it’s a genre I feel I’ve only been exploring more of late, so many of the classic authors I’m not actually acquainted with. I haven’t read anything by Ruth Rendell OR Barbara Vine, though I at least have a book by the latter (A Dark Adapted Eye). Your review has definitely peaked my interest in RR, though I may start elsewhere since you say this is not one of her best.

    • Teresa says:

      If you already have A Dark-Adapted Eye, that’s a good one to start with! A lot of people count it among their favorites, and I know I enjoyed it–I just don’t remember it well enough to confidently recommend it!

  7. christopher lord says:

    Hands down, The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine, is the best Rendell out there, closely followed by A Dark Adapted Eye, one of the creepiest of all (and, consider that it’s Rendell, that’s saying a lot).

    She is the best living mystery writer, and her failures are better than most writers’ best efforts. I’ve fallen a few books behind in the last few years, but I’d read her grocery lists if she published them.

    For a procedural, consider Simisola, a mature Wexford novel, that keeps the suspense going until the last word of the book. Literally.

    • Teresa says:

      Totally agree that Rendell’s failures are better than a lot of other writers’ successes.

      And I wish I could remember A Dark-Adapted Eye and The House of Stairs. I know I read and enjoyed them (I believe I read them both in quick succession), but all I remember now is that one (or both?) involved sisters and one had a cradle on the cover. Clearly I need to reread them!

      I do remember that I didn’t like Simisola much, but I think I’m a tough customer when it comes to detective fiction. IIRC, it was the solution that annoyed me. One of these days, though, I may give Wexford another try.

  8. Jenny says:

    Hooray for Ruth Rendell! Hard to name another author who could write 60+ novels and be so reliable. It’s been a while since I’ve picked up one of hers. I should, soon.

  9. Eva says:

    The only Ruth Rendell I tried was From Doon With Death, the first one, and it didn’t leave me overly impressed (I’m a fan of traditional mysteries too!). I’ll have to give her another try one of these days. :)

  10. Kathleen says:

    I had my first Rendell reading experience just this year. I also love the idea that there is a whole shelf of her books at the library. When I am in the mood again, I can have loads to choose from!

    • Teresa says:

      It is great to know there’s so much more–and there’s almost always bound to be several options on the shelves! That’s why I always wandered to the R’s during my library visits.

  11. Philip Swan says:

    Enjoyed your review very much – Rendell is in a class by herself – My own ‘Rendell phase’ began in 1987 with the first Vine, A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, which I’ve since re-read at least four times (I’ve read many of the Vines up to five times each (and my favorite, ASTA’S BOOK, 13 or 14 times), and most of her other books at least twice) – if my “Rendell Phase” shows signs of wavering, call a doctor – FAST! As I write this I’m quivering with anticipation for the Advance Reading Copy of her next booK, THE VAULT, which is on its way to me. She is, bar none, my favorite writer, and anyone just beginning to dip into her work is in for a treat. THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING and A FATAL INVERSION are also Essential Vine, and A JUDGMENT IN STONE, THE KILLING DOLL, THE TREE OF HANDS and LIVE FLESH are essential stand-alone (non-Wexford series) Rendell. As for the Wexfords, although they rank 3rd in my Rendell preference (behind The Vines and the Rendell Stand-Alones), this in no way implies that they are inferior – Wexford is a fully-developed character (though admittedly a bit sketchy in the early books – Rendell didn’t actually realize he was going to be the star of the series!) and the books entertain while providing a remarkable documentation of the changes in British life since the early 1960s.

    RENDELL RULES!!!!

    • Teresa says:

      I love your Rendell enthusiasm, and she deserves it, for sure! I think A Fatal Inversion is my favorite, but it’s hard to choose! Anna’s/Asta’s Book is awfully good. I really need to get back in the habit. I keep reading Rendell wannabes instead, and end up craving the real thing all the more.

  12. Margariet says:

    Ah, Ruth Rendell, a sweet memory from the past. I still read every novel by her but it’s not there anymore. The magic touch is gone. Although I have to admit that I read the novel in one day but at the end it didn’t deliver. There were too many characters who could have left out easily and there were so many missed chances to make the story more interesting;

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