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Posts Tagged ‘The Girl Next Door’

rendellSometime back in the 1980s, I called Ruth Rendell “a literary Hitchcock,” and the phrase stuck. It was picked up in blurbs on paperbacks, sometimes attributed to me at the Orlando Sentinel, sometimes to other papers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune — where my reviews also ran. I repeated it myself, or variations thereof, as in this 1989 review of  The House of Stairs, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym: “Again we see how Rendell/Vine has become the Hitchcock of the literary thriller, approaching her subjects from unexpected angles and finding the odd twist that throws readers for a loop.”

Oh, I’m going to miss her. Ruth Rendell died Saturday in London, age 85. She wrote more than 60 books, both traditional detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and chilling novels of psychological suspense. She wrote the latter under the Rendell name, and she further transcended the genre with the Vine books. The first was A Dark Adapted Eye in 1986, and she once told me in an interview that she knew from the beginning which book would be a Ruth Rendell and which a Barbara Vine. “Barbara,” she said, “was more serious,” and the crimes depicted were more sensational, the kind that captured public attention and might result in a dramatic trial or a family scandal.

All of her novels were intricately plotted, less interested in the “whodunit” and  more in the how and why. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all, including the collections of short stories and the frosty novella Heartstones. Many of her characters were outsiders, perhaps mentally disturbed or caught up in strange obsessions. She was interested in questions of identity, especially in the Vine novels, and her narrators tended toward the unreliable. She wasn’t afraid of the sordid, the grotesque, the downright creepy.

In person, Rendell was pleasant and thoughtful, somewhat reserved. She took her writing seriously, she said, but not herself, and she had more ideas than time to write. Her most recent Rendell was The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about in the post “Scare Tactics” in November of last year. Its mystery centered on a pair of severed, skeletal hands — one male, one female — found in a tin box by construction workers. The last Wexford was 2013’s No Man’s Nightingale, in which the aging detective  came out of retirement to investigate the murder of a vicar. But this is no armchair cozy, I wrote, because the strangled vicar is a single mother, whose race, gender and progressive views divided her congregation. (After 2004’s The Babes in the Woods, the 19th Wexford, Rendell told me she thought it might be the last unless she had a really good idea. She then wrote five more Wexfords).

Vine wasn’t quite as prolific as Rendell. There are just 13, including 2013’s The Child’s Child, a book within a book. I wrote that whenever Rendell assumes her Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. The Vine novels still can surprise me on rereading because I never can remember all the secrets of The Minotaur, say, or Asta’s Book (published in the U.S. as Anna’s Book).

The New York Times obituary states that Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is to be published in October. I don’t know if it’s a Wexford, a Rendell stand-alone or a Vine. I know I can’t wait to read it, and that I’m sorry it will be the last.

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forgersA friend was trying to remember the title of an old P.D. James novel. “Y’know, the one with the hands.” Actually, no hands. Unnatural Causes opens with a memorably creepy sentence: “The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.”

Severed hands also figure in two chilly new crime novels. In Bradford Morrow’s artful The Forgers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), rare book collector Adam Diehl is found murdered in his Montauk home surrounded by the ruins of valuable signed books and manuscripts. That Adam’s hands are missing leads narrator Will to speculate that Adam, the beloved brother of his girlfriend Meghan, was killed and mutilated because he was a secret forger. Will knows something about the subject because he was once a forger, too — specializing in Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James, among others — but he has spent years working his way back into the book world’s good graces. Now he verifies the authenticity of  the handwriting in books’ inscriptions and in old letters for other collectors, occasionally recalling the thrill of faking the perfect signature. His suspicions about Adam, which he keeps from Meghan, are heightened when he begins receiving expertly forged letters from dead authors that hint at more secrets about the unsolved murder and Will’s past. Aha! The game is afoot — or is it at hand? Will makes for an eloquent and informed — if unreliable — narrator, and readers will appreciate the inside details about bibliophiles, obsession and books to die for.

nextdoorThe severed hands are skeletal in Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door (Scribner, digital galley), found in a tin box by construction workers. The tabloids are fascinated by the mystery of the two hands — one male, one female — and the news reunites a group of childhood friends who 60 years ago played in the subterranean tunnel where the box was found. Alan, long-married to one of the playmates, Rosemary, finds himself attracted to another, widowed Daphne, once “the girl next door.”  Michael decides to contact his ancient father, whose abuse drove away Michael’s mother in 1944. Others  also find their lives upended by the police investigation. Rendell moves between the present and past, stringing readers along with a deft hand skilled at misdirection. The book reminded me of A Fatal Inversion, a long-ago novel Rendell wrote under her Barbara Vine pseudonym, although its characters are decades younger than those in the new book. Both tales, though, explore how past choices play out in present lives, often with exquisite irony.

killernextIt’s not just hands that are severed in Alex Marwood’s grisly The Killer Next Door (Penguin, library paperback), her follow-up to the Edgar Award-winning The Wicked Girls. I liked that book a lot, but I had a harder time with this new thriller as the killer murders, dismembers and tries to mummify women living in a rundown boarding house in South London. Ick. But the main story of the diverse people living on the margins of society and slowly realizing that one of them is a killer kept me turning pages. I wanted to know why Collette fled her old life and changed her name, and what has turned young Cheryl into a shoplifter. What embarrassing secrets is Gerard hiding, and why is Thomas lying about his job? Is Hossein really a political refugee? The penny-pinching landlord has been feuding with basement resident Vesta for years. To what lengths will he go to oust her from her rent-controlled apartment? A bizarre accident brings together the boarders to orchestrate a cover-up with unforeseen and surprising consequences.

brokenA time-traveling serial killer stalked the pages of Lauren Beukes’  The Shining Girls, and she again adds a whiff of the supernatural to Broken Monsters  (Little, Brown, digital galley). A killer dubbed “the Detroit Monster” introduces himself to the city with a grotesque corpse, half-boy, half-deer.  Det. Gabrielle Versado catches the case and tries to keep the most sensational details out of the press. But this is the age of the internet, and citizen journalist Jonno sees the story as his ticket to fame. Meanwhile, Versado’s 15-year-old daughter is playing a dangerous online game with a sexual predator and ends up at an inner city art installation that hides another horrific creation. A rookie cop goes missing. Then there’s TK, whose checkered past brings him into contact with the homeless, the friendless and the deranged. The fragmented storylines converge in an abandoned factory warehouse where little is what it seems.

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Trapped in waiting rooms, I turn to thrillers for escape. And doctors wonder why my blood pressure’s up.

Like Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, Mark Mills is adept at historical espionage. His atmospheric fourth novel The House of the Hunted (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is set in the seemingly idyllic South of France in 1935, where ex-Britsh spy Tom Nash is enjoying the good life in a villa overlooking the sea. He’s squashed memories of his violent past and lost love Irina, but when an assassin breaks into his house in the middle of the night, Nash finds old habits die hard.

Who among his circle of close friends and entertaining expats wants him dead? Nash turns spy again, suspecting a genial hotel owner, German dissidents, exiled White Russians, local police, even as his old boss, all the while nursing a crush on the daughter of said boss and closest friend. If Mary Stewart had written the book, it would have been romantic suspense from lovely Lucy’s point of view, in love with the older man she has known since childhood. As it is, Nash does his best to protect her from the secrets of the past and save both their lives in the process. A bit slow at the start, the story accelerates nicely once Nash starts driving the twisting coastal roads with a killer on his trail and yet another waiting around the next curve.

David Baldacci’s The Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley) is a hunting-the-hunter tale, full of cliches and contrivances. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I couldn’t put it down.

The beginning finds lonely government hitman Will Robie taking out the bad guys, no muss, no fuss, and then waiting for his next mission. He’s the consumate, patriotic professional but with his own moral compass, so the day comes when he refuses to pull the trigger on a designated target.  Then he’s on the run, and with his skill set, should be able to survive. But there’s 14-year-old Julie, who witnessed the murder of her parents. and who desperately needs his help. Aw, shucks. Chase on!

Now, you may find pet psychics and sleuthing felines to be wildly implausible, but Clea Simon has no trouble convincing me of the detecting abilities of Pru Marlow and her clever tabby Wallis. She follows up her first Pet Noir mystery, Dogs Can’t Lie, with the entertaining Cats Can’t Shoot (Poisoned Pen, paperback galley).

Horrified to be called out on a cat shooting, Pru soon discovers the white Persian isn’t the victim but the accused killer, apparently having set off an antique dueling pistol. The poor cat is so traumatized, Pru can’t tune into her thoughts, but she and Wallis trust their own instincts that there’s something fishy about the scene — and it’s not kibble.

My only quibble with Simon’s tales is the reminder of how many animals are in need of rescue and ever-after homes. But I think that’s probably a good thing.

Simon describes herself as a “recovering journalist,” which is also one of my identities, and yes, we know each other through Facebook and occasional e-mails. I don’t know Brad Parks, who describes himself as “an escaped journalist,” but I sure recognize his series sleuth, Carter Ross, an investigative reporter for a Newark, N.J., paper. You can still find cool, cocky, cynically idealistic guys like Carter in newsrooms across the country, although not in the troop strength of back-in-the-day. Look for the khakis, oxford-cloth shirt and attitude. Love ’em.

The Girl Next Door (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley through NetGalley), the third in the series, is terrific at capturing newspaper atmosphere and antics, but I wish the plot was stronger. Looking into the accidental hit-and-run death of a newspaper delivery woman for a tribute story, Carter finds evidence of foul play, perhaps dealing with the circulation department’s acrimonious labor negotiations with the tight-fisted publisher. Convinced he’s on to something despite his sexy editor Tina’s admonishments, Carter risks his career in pursuit of the story, facing such obstacles as a pretty waitress, an egghead intern built like a football player, a runaway bear, the tight squeeze of a cat door and the inside of a jail.

Carter’s snappy narration saves the day, but the interrupting scenes from the real villain’s perspective give away the killer’s identity way too soon. Too bad; this could have been a sweetheart with some rewrite.

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