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Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Rendell’

I really should stop reading mysteries before bedtime. But the days are long and light-filled into the evening, and I forget. I start a new novel, and the sun goes down, the stars come out, and I just keep on reading into the wee hours. The next day — like today — I’m sleepy and don’t want to write, but I before I start reading another mystery — or just take a nap — I best tell you what’s been keeping me up nights.

Let’s start with the title-appropriate Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson (HarperCollins).  Life is one long one-night stand for Christine Lucas, but not in the way you might think.  She wakes up in a strange bed next to a strange man every day because a brain injury has resulted in years of memory loss. A look in the mirror reveals a middle-aged version of the young woman she still feels like; notes on the mirror tell her the man in her bed is her husband, Ben. A phone call from an unknown doctor prompts her to retrieve her journal from its hiding place in the closet. It’s full of the memories that sleep erases every night. “Don’t trust Ben,” she reads. Why not? She can’t remember.

Watson’s first thriller offers first-rate psychological suspense as Christine’s journal entries begin to fill in the blanks. She reads that she has recently started having visceral flashbacks of real memory. But what she remembers conflicts with what Ben has told her and the pictures he shows her. Perhaps she’s imagining that she once wrote a book and had a child. Ben reassures her daily with great patience and concern.

A story from an amnesiac’s perspective involves a certain amount of repetition, but Watson doesn’t overdo it as Christine realizes — every day — that the only person she can really trust is herself. If only she could remember. . .

Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Houghton Mifflin) offers such fascinating characters and atmosphere, I didn’t mind the meandering storyline in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Private investigator Claire DeWitt is sort of a New Age-noir Nancy Drew, who has been solving mysteries since her Brooklyn childhood with the help of her dreams, omens and a book by a mysterious French detective. Alcohol, cigarettes, pot, and memories of her mentor, Constance Darling, also inspire Claire as she searches for attorney Vic Willing, who disappeared during the storm. Perhaps the green parrots he used to feed are a clue, maybe the tough street kids he befriended. She compares tattoos and war stories with teen-age Andray, who reluctantly hooks her up with a gun and also has a connection with Constance.

“The thing about this city,” Andray says at one point. “It knows how to tell a beautiful story. It truly does. But if you’re looking a happy ending, you better be lookin’ somewhere else.”

Years ago, I dubbed Ruth Rendell something of a literary Hitchcock because she comes at her stories from unexpected angles. Now, in Tigerlily’s Orchids (Simon & Schuster), she does a version of “Rear Window” on a block of London flats. A widower named Duncan, who lives next door to a secretive Asian family, peers across the street, making up stories about the inhabitants of Lichfield House even as Rendell reveals their secret lives.

Charming slacker Stuart Font is planning a housewarming party in the flat he recently bought with an inheritance, but he’s having trouble with the guest list. He’d just as soon that Claudia, the married woman with whom he’s been having an affair, not come, especially with her powerful attorney husband. Olwen, the unkempt woman upstairs, is deliberately drinking herself to death. But the three young women who share a flat will be attractive additions, and he’ll also ask the hippie classics buff and the new woman who just moved in. He’s not much on the creepy building super and his vulgar wife, but Stuart asks them as well.

Rendell builds suspense slowly as she raises “people-watching” to a fine art. The party proves explosive, yet the requisite murder doesn’t happen until later,  almost an afterthought. By then, readers have eavesdropped on a half-dozen characters’ private lives and lies, and mysteries have emerged. The most intriguing concerns the beautiful Asian woman across the street, whom Duncan calls “Tigerlily,” and with whom Stuart becomes obsessed in true Rendell fashion.

Town meets gown in Charlotte Bacon’s elegantly written academic mystery The Twisted Thread (Hyperion Voice). When a popular  student at elite Armitage Academy is murdered in her dorm room shortly before graduation, her friends confide in Madeline Christopher, the novice English teacher. Madeline is at first flattered, and then threatened, by what the girls tell her. She turns to Matt Corelli, a local cop who has his own checkered history with the prep school.

Bacon moves among the perspectives of Madeline, Matt, Fred, an art teacher carrying on the family legacy, and Jim, the school’s middle-aged maintenance worker, well-versed in the school’s basement tunnels. Each has a back story that Bacon neatly twists into the well-knotted narrative that also includes a secret society, a charismatic headmaster, furtive love affairs, overprivileged students, suspicious townies and  — to up the ante — a missing newborn.

Peter Lovesey’s likeable curmudgeon Peter Diamond returns in Stagestruck (Soho Press), an artful tale provoked by a horrific opening-night incident at Bath’s Theatre Royal. Diamond reluctantly investigates;  just walking into the theatre gives him the willies, but his superior is angling for a part in an upcoming production of Sweeney Todd.

Lovsey’s humor and plotting are razor-sharp as Diamond and company question a cast of distinctive theater types, from the ambitious understudy to the oily artistic director. The theatre is supposedly haunted by a grey lady, and alternately blessed and cursed by tortoiseshell butterflies. Diamond’s impatient with the superstitions, but dogged about solving the mounting mysteries, including his own phobia of the footlights. The curtain comes down in a stunning finale.

Open Book: I read digital galleys of all of the above mysteries. Four were supplied by the publishers through NetGalley; Simon & Schuster has its own digital “galley grab.” I’ve more mysteries to read before I sleep, or they expire on my nook. Curses! Deadlines all over again.

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chung-Chung! I interrupted this books blogs last May to pay tribute to the demise of the original Law and Order after 20 years, although reruns continue to tape loop on cable TV. I woke up early yesterday to Laura Linney’s voice as she testified she killed the Japanese businessman in self-defense. Now I’m wondering if that episode is one that will be adapted for Law and Order UK. Yes, the Brit version premiered on BBC America last night with the episode about how a slumlord’s efforts to get rid of tenants resulted in a baby’s death. 

Ok, so I already knew the story, but Anglophile that I am, I adored the accents, the atmosphere, the barristers’ wigs, and several of my favorite actors: Jamie Bamber as a Logan-like detective, Harriet Walter as his boss, Freema Aygeman as a junior crown prosecutor. I almost didn’t recognize Bradley Walsh as veteran copper Ronnie Brooks; he put on 30 pounds to be the Lennie Briscoe counterpart. Further episodes are scheduled for 9 p.m. Fridays.

Meanwhile, I was underwhelmed by the premiere of Law and Order LA last week with its cliched, predictable plot. I felt like I’d seen it all before, the Hollywood mansions and young celebs, stage mom cashing in on daughter’s fame. Yawn. If I’m going to watch same-old stories, let them be in London, whose distinctive neighborhoods provide less-familiar vistas.

And on that note (chung-Chung), I’ll return to two new books, in which the London setting is integral to the tale.

Ruth Rendell’s latest suspense outing, Portobello, takes readers to Notting Hill and the famous Portobello Road street market, where you can buy everything — food, furniture, books, beddings, jewelry, junk –except live animals or birds. Stuffed ones? No problem. Thousands of visitors wander the stalls and shops on Saturdays, and I agree with Rendell that once you go, you want to go again. “Its thread attaches itself to you and a twitch on it summons you to return.”

The thread that ties together the disparate characters in Rendell’s twisty story is a money-filled envelope that sauve gallery owner Eugene Wren discovers on the street. Instead of turning it into the police, he posts a “Found” notice with his phone number. The consequences lead to a young layabout turning to a life of crime (it runs in the family), Eugene’s doctor fiance being drawn into the affairs of a mentally troubled man, a house fire, a sudden death, a falling-out among thieves, and another murder.  Eccentricity is the order of the day, and Rendell briskly knots all plot points before neatly unraveling them. I could have done without Eugene’s boring addiction to a certain brand of sugarless candy, but at least it takes him to assorted colorful shops and take-aways on Portobello Road.

Readers move south toward the Thames to Pimlico for Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions, a whimsical on-line novel serialized for the London Telegraph. Smith, who had his first big success with the No. 1 Lady Detective Agency series set in Botswana has become quite prolific; he’s now juggling four series.

Corduroy Mansions, which takes its name from that of a shabby genteel mansion block in Pimlico, follows the intertwining lives of its residents. Of course, they are eccentrics to one degree or another, and their everyday comings-and-goings are often agreeably comical.

I suppose William French, a 50ish widower and wine merchant, is the central character. His efforts to dislodge his grown son Eddie from his flat include inviting a woman to live with him (he’s thinking platonic, she’s thinking maybe more), and acquiring a clever “Pimlico terrier,” Freddie de la Hay. Eddie claims to be allergic to dogs, but Freddie is as irresistible as another character, Oedipus Snark, is odious. One of the girls who shares the flat below William is secretary to Oedipus, whose girlfriend literary agent is about give up on him, and whose mother is writing his biography.  There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding a possibly valuable painting, hints of romance, and much satirical drollery. I’m looking forward to the next entries in the series. So much so that I’m now following “freddiedelahay” on Twitter.

Open Book: You already know of my L&O addiction. I think Ruth Rendell, whom I’ve interviewed several times, writes masterful crime fiction, both as Rendell and Barbara Vine. I can’t believe Portobello (Scribner)was just waiting for me on the library shelf. I once sat next to Alexander McCall Smith at a book luncheon, and he told me his friends call him “Sandy.” He has a lovely Scots accent and was wearing a kilt. I downloaded the e-book version of Corduroy Mansions (Knopf Doubleday) to my nook because I like the title, the cover and Sandy.

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When things go bump in the night at my place, it’s usually because a pet or a person has dislodged a stack of books. Just as well. “Haunted condo” doesn’t have the same ring as “haunted house.”

I like my haunted houses old, large and creepy, preferably in Britain, but a Southern mansion will do the trick. The ghosts may or may not be “real,” but someone will think they are. The past will impinge upon the present in unforseen ways. One of my favorite haunted houses is Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, where spooky Mrs. Danvers asks the young narrator if she believes the dead return to watch the living.

So I had high hopes for the decaying Warwickshire mansion known as High Hundreds, the setting for Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I generally like Waters’ books (Fingersmith), and this one was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recommended by Stephen King, who knows something about scaring the daylights out of readers.

But The Little Stranger, in which narrator Dr. Faraday, becomes involved in the diminished lives of the Ayers family — widowed mother, World War II-injured son Roderick, spinster daughter Caroline — is all repressed psychological suspense, owing much to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. A friend who has read neither book found The Little Stranger “a well-written non-story.”  I agree. Hundreds itself is a fascinating haunted house, but the tale is ultimately dispiriting.

Waters’ novel, which came out last year, did send me back to re-read 2007’s  The Minotaur by Barbara Vine, a master of literary suspense whether writing under the Vine pseudonym or as Ruth Rendell.  Here the setting is 1960s Essex and the vine-covered (!) Lydstep Old Hall, home to the seriously dysfunctional Cosway family. The narrator, young Swedish nurse Kerstin, arrives admittedly like a Bronte heroine to be confronted by a selfish matriarch ruling over four daughters and a troubled genius son, John. Kerstin, who is there to help look after the supposedly schizophrenic John, soon decides that drugging John into a zombie-like state isn’t doing him any good. Meanwhile, a dashing, penniless artist has arrived in the neighborhood and doesn’t seem to care which Cosway sister he’ll seduce.

It’s all as complicated as the library labyrinth at the center of the house where John seeks refuge. Vine spins a teasing narrative threaded with clues and leading inexorably to a shocking climax. You know something horrible is bound to happen, but not how or to whom. Disturbing and haunting. 

Open Book: I received The Little Stranger (Penguin) as a Christmas gift and bought a paperback of The Minotaur (Knopf) after first reading a library copy.

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