Ruth Rendell has a long and distinguished career as a crime novelist, both of a series involving an ongoing inspector (Wexford) and as a crime writer of standalone books, without and ongoing investigator, And then there is her writing using another name, Barbara Vine. The Vine books (which generally prefer) are rather darker and rather more devoted to complex subterranean psychology. It could be said they are really psychological thrillers.
Curiously, Rendell's latest `Barbara Vine' did not quite `bite' with me the way she usually does.
This latest Rendell is also not quite expected Rendell. For those expecting a crime, and an investigation to unmask the perpetrator it will come as a bit of a surprise to find the crime, and the perpetrator, and indeed the motive, are all explained in the blurb.
In the 40s, a man murders his wife and her lover, does a bit of dismemberment and buries their hands in a biscuit tin. (he saw them holding hands, when he came home unexpectedly, which alerted him to what was going on). Local children, including his son, play in the tunnels in semi-rural Loughton (as it was then) The tunnels will serve as a hiding place for the hands
Jumping forward more than 60 years the community of children have gone their ways, though some have kept in contact. Their lives begin to connect again when building development work uncovers the hands and the tin, and a half-hearted cold cases enquiry begins. Half-hearted as it is pretty obvious that whoever did the deed, and on whom, is most likely to be dead. The children who played in the tunnels are either themselves dead or in their seventies and more.
What the `crime hook' does to is to reunite a group of very different elderly people, and `the hands' are what connects their lives together again, whether they directly affected some of the major players at the time (for example the murderer's son) or later, as the various at the time mysteries begin to be remembered and picked over.
What the book is really about is the passage of time, and, particularly, a look at the loves, lives and losses of a group of elderly people.
There are some things which are clearly `devices' and don't quite work - for example, the very burial of those hands, and the comparative ease with which the murderer got away with his murders, but I did get interested in the lives of the elderly group.
The exploration of the long uncoupling of marriages, and the enduring potency of first love, and, yes, the existence of sexuality and passionate feelings in a group of people whom most of us might think are `past it' proved more absorbing than I might have supposed.
I received this as a review copy from the publishers
on 29 November 2014
Not among those old enough to have accumulated some.
It is very daring to begin a novel with an unlikeable protagonist. We are lead to believe that this terrible person is to be the main character, and most readers prefer to be able to identify to some extent with the protagonist.
Luckily this psychopatic person leaves the scene, and keeps in the background from then on.
It is a geriatric novel, no doubt about it. All the characters from the first chapters are suddenly old, and in their twilight years.
As often is the case in crime fiction, the solving of a crime has more implications for a wider circle of people, and even between these old folks, feelings and emotions are stirred, and shaken.
After the unraveling of the crime which took place during ww||, the lives of the now very old group of people will not be the same again.
Ruth Rendell has done it again with the enthusiasm we have become used to expect from her.
People may look old on the outside, but the inside may still react in an unexpected and surprising way.
Bodil Marie - Keeping her Wits about Her.
At the beginning of this book we meet the murderer, we know one of the victims and we also know why the murder was committed. I found the character of the murderer and his victim the sketchiest of all, he seemed a little one dimensional but the story soon flips to the discovery of the hands in a biscuit tin found seventy years later.
The story almost appears to change genre with the discovery as we meet the now elderly characters who at the time of the murder were young children living in the area. These children had played in foundations of an unbuilt house inventing games under the ground. The story then concentrates on these characters as some of them meet after many years apart to help the police investigating (unwillingly) the provenance of the hands. These meetings have consequences that couldn’t have been foreseen as in the last years of their lives each of the characters have different challenges to face.
Ruth Rendell does what she does best, she examines the motives of these people making the subtle point that even in old age, people make mistakes, they still learn things about themselves and they can change the way they behave. There are some lovely people including the dear Mrs Moss who used to clean for the murderer as well as the misguided and the downright rotten.
The descriptions of Loughton bought the place to life and the plot was well executed although I found that in parts the looking back at how people said things a little repetitive at times but it did underline the enormous changes that someone in their late seventies would have seen over their lifetime.
I enjoyed this book although it wasn’t quite what I expected but it was less entertaining for that.
I’d like to thank the publishers, Random House, who gave me a copy of this book to review ahead of the publication date of 14 August 2014
on 16 August 2014
SOME of us have spent the best part of 50 years working on that one great novel that will make us a mint and buy us a Marbella apartment. In that time, crime queen Ruth Rendell has knocked out 65 – and this latest one is every bit as good as her first, the highly collectable From Doon With Death, way back in 1964.
She’s famous for her Sussex-based Inspector Wexford stories, which started her career, but this book’s set in Essex, close to her actual childhood stomping ground.
It kicks off in wartime with kids larking about in tunnels under a house. These are important. It’s where a complete and utter psycho places a biscuit tin containing the hands of his wife and her fancy man after he’s topped them. He sets about burning all the rest of the evidence but he’s spotted by one of the kids – who keeps what she’s seen to herself for 70-odd years.
Here in the present day builders come across the tin with its grim contents and call in the rozzers. The news brings together the bunch of now OAPs who played there as kids and could now help the probe. Through them we learn a whole lot more than whodunnit. We get to know what time does to memories, to relationships, to the world around us, to our minds.
That’s because Rendell’s always been damn good at getting us inside the heads of her characters – how they think despite the way they act and look – and by extention, ourselves, if we cared to probe harder.
Given she’s in her ninth decade she’d be forgiven for churning out a bog standard mystery, yet The Girl Next Door comes across as insightful, fresh, new and terrifying as anything else around.
This novel, more literary than traditional crime fiction, veers between the present and the past. During the Second World War a group of children in Loughton, Essex, played together in some underground tunnels they found and renamed ‘the qanats.’ Nobody really remembers why, but time has passed and the group of children have grown up, grown old and, mostly, dispersed. However, the discovery of a pair of severed hands, buried in a biscuit tin so long ago, now brings many of those who played there so long ago back together again. Daphne Jones, three times married and still glamorous, Michael Winwood, whose father chased them from the tunnels and Lewis Newman, both now widowed, childhood sweethearts Alan Norris and Rosemary Wharton and the Batchelors – of whom George, Stanley and Norman are still alive.
The police are asked to investigate the crime – of which the reader is already aware of both victims and murderer . However, this book is more about the impact of the discovery and of unearthing old memories on those involved. In many ways this is a poignant and touching read – of both how age limits and frees us. It reunites old lovers, wreaks huge changes and forces people to confront their loss and childhood traumas. Ruth Rendell manages to make all the characters sympathetic, so you really care about what happens to them. Despite the length of time between the crime and the investigation, making even the police involved cynical about finding a conclusion, there is little doubt that confronting what happened at that time will help solve unanswered questions, make some characters doubt the way they are living their lives and, in some cases, make enormous changes. I really enjoyed this novel, even though it was not a traditional ‘whodunnit’ and it made me question why I have not read more of Ruth Rendell’s novels. Luckily, that is something I can, and do, intend to rectify. Lastly, I received a copy of this book from the publishers, via NetGalley, for review.
The reader knows who has committed the murder from the start of this well written crime novel so it isn't a traditional 'who done it' and there is very little input from the police investigating the crime at a later date. The book primarily concerns a group of friends who were children at the time of the murder - near the end of World War II - and how the discovery of two severed hands in a biscuit tin sixty years later affects them.
It is fairly obvious who one of the hands belongs to but the reader must wait until almost the end of the book to find out who is the other victim. I thought the characters were well developed and the author paints a vivid picture of their lives as adults. I thought it was interesting how the dynamics between the group changed and developed as the discovery of the hands leads to them talking about what happened that Summer when the murders probably took place.
If you're looking for a conventional crime novel then this may not be for you but if you're looking for an excellent novel about how people change - and don't change - during their lifetime then this may be of interest to you. Whether or not you enjoy crime novels this is worth reading for its development of character and the way small events can have huge repercussions at the time as well as many years later. I received a free copy of this book for review purposes from NetGalley.
on 3 September 2014
I enjoyed this book and it did hold me to the end, but it's not quite what you might expect from Ruth Rendell. It's not a 'whodunnit?' and so has none of the thrill of working out who the murderer is, or solving a mystery. You know from the start who the guilty party is, so you're left with a slightly curious tale about a group of ageing individuals thrown together, who have not been in much contact with each other since childhood. The characterisation is good, as you might expect, it is both sad and funny in places, and there's enough 'what will happen?' to keep you reading to the end. But it's more a tale of various personalities interacting, reflecting on what they want in life and in some cases acting in ways no-one expects, rather than being one of the mysteries for which Ruth Rendell is famous. I hoped for a classic mystery, so while I enjoyed it, I was left feeling slightly disappointed.
A horrific find in modern-day Essex:the remains of two severed hands dating back from the 1940s...
This is the first book I have read by Ruth Rendall and I am very impressed on a number of fronts. Firstly, although you know who the murderer is right from the start, plus their motivation, Rendall has created such an interesting group of characters and situations that you have to keep reading to the end. Secondly, the focus of the story is largely on old people and their struggles, and Rendall seems to understand them so well, which is rare in modern English fiction. Thirdly, although you know a lot right from the beginning, there are still plenty of surprises to build to a very satisfying denouement in the final chapters. When I finished it I went straight onto an earlier novel by Rendall, the classic Kissing the Gunner's Daughter. This is just as good in its own way. I highly recommend it.
Things I would like Ruth Rendell to stop doing, from now:
- pretending that all people think about when they speak is how politically correct they are being
- referring to how things used to be said/done/thought of in years past, either through her characters or in her authorial voice
- writing books as if all her audience are in their 80s
I admit, there's only so much of the above that I can take. In Wexford books I sort of expect it. In Tigerlily's Orchids and The St. Zita Society it was only a couple of the characters. But this book is pretty much all it is? Couple that with a complete lack of any suspense whatsoever, and I found this a relatively tedious read.
I get, I think, that this is more a "literary" novel about ageing and the elderly than anything else. If it is, though, it's not subtle enough. And I'm not sure I want to read Ruth Rendell for that - if she'd turned her hand to this 20 years ago, when at her peak, perhaps. At bottom, what I want from Ruth Rendell is a novel of suspense, with a sense of danger, with a few cold shocks throughout. She can do whatever she likes in the background, as long as the basic ingredients are there. Normally, I think writers should be allowed to write whatever they fancy. And that's fair enough if what they end up writing is good and satisfying, whatever it is trying to be. I find it hard to say that The Girl Next Door is either good or satisfying.
This is a novel whose message essentially is: old people are no different to the rest of us just because they are old; they continue to behave badly or well in the same way everyone else does, and have lives and loves, disappointments and joys. The crime feels a little tacked on, though I admit that the mirroring of the 40s crime and the actions of the elderly characters in the present day is very well done. Other than that, though, not much happens. We are treated to 250 pages in which some elderly people live their lives, and whose events reach various resolutions - the only moment where there was a promise of some spark dwindled out. I think there is supposed to be a kind of "twist" at the end, but I personally don't think it's remotely plausible - increase the character's age by 2 years and I might have been convinced. I was also not convinced by the "villain", who is more of a pantomime character than a figure with any real sense of Rendellian edginess.
The writing is, of course, very good, and I always enjoy Rendell's style, and the comments she makes about people's motives and compulsions. But... there's not that much else to particularly enjoy here, I am sad to say. It's 2.5 stars rather than 3.
This can only be described as a crime novel in the very loosest sense: in the opening chapter set in the early 1940s a man murders two people before burying their hands in a spot where children played. Now 60-70 years later, those children are all in their 70s and 80s - and it's their stories that we follow.
As other reviewers have said, Rendell seems torn about how to portray her octogenarian cast: sometimes they're made out to be lost in the past, barely understanding what email is, fretting about young people 'living in sin' and insisting on running up new clothes on a sewing machine... yet at other times they're romping in and out of each others' beds, walking out of marriages and forming new romantic alliances. The girl who was a femme fatale in her teens is, apparently, still one in her 80s.
There is barely any tension in the story and it's difficult at first to separate the characters as they don't have much, um, character. And yet, for all the niggles, I found this oddly compelling as a read. If you come to this expecting a crime novel you might well be disappointed. Better, perhaps, to treat this as a soap opera filled with over-70s: easy reading that somehow still seems to grip.