This 1965 Ruth Rendell novel is more of a whodunit than I’m used to from her. It’s set in a neighborhood called Linchester, built on the site of what was once a large manor house and park. The families that live there watch each other’s activities and gossip about who’s having money problems, who’s not quite classy enough, and who’s having an affair with whom. It’s clear that there’s a lot of tension in the community, and inside particular households, even if everything looks calm on the outside.
The community comes together for the birthday party of Tamsin Selby, the unhappy wife of Patrick. At the party, Patrick is stung by wasps when their nest is disturbed. The next morning he is dead of heart failure.
Initially, it’s a straightforward enough case of death by natural causes, but as Dr. Greenleaf, a neighbor who was at the party, hears more and more gossip about the Selbys and details about Patrick’s death, the more he begins to wonder. And so we have the mystery.
There are suspects aplenty: the unhappy wife, the spurned mistress, the mistress’s brother, the wife’s lover, the lover’s wife, and so on. And bits of evidence point to one and then the other until all the details fall into place and the solution appears. Although I’m not sure a reader could definitively solve this mystery, it is nicely constructed, built on what seem to be throwaway details that become important only after the answer is revealed.
To Fear a Painted Devil is Rendell’s second novel and her first standalone book. It doesn’t have the same psychological potency of some of her later books, although she does show some of the interest in social issues around class, domestic abuse, and personal relationships that inform her later books. Traditional whodunits aren’t my favorite kind of crime novels, but this was a good one. Rendell was truly one of the greats.