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Book Review

Curious characters bend crime fiction’s rules in Rendell’s latest

By Ed Siegel
June 22, 2011

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Ruth Rendell’s prolific career took a fascinating turn some 10 years ago. Instead of focusing in on a handful of characters, at least one of them transgressive to the max, she became fascinated by the whole panoply of contemporary London — the vain, the beautiful, and the young; the immigrants trying to find their way; the embittered white working class; the drunks and New Agers; the loveless and the lovelorn.

There’s no central character in “Tigerlily’s Orchids,’’ just a central group of residents of flats where all of the above and a few other denizens of post-Blair, not-so-merry-old England are thrown together in Altmanesque style along with a nasty caretaker with a penchant for pedophilia.

Rendell’s world is the Eurocentric flipside of Zadie Smith’s, though with more lethal things in mind. When the one murder in the book occurs about two-thirds through, a half-dozen characters could be suspects. Not that this is a whodunit, any more than her other books are. Rendell’s main concern is how her characters live their lives, not end them.

And for the most part they don’t live them very well, frittering their amorous intentions on those who aren’t worth it and their incomes on stuff that’s bound to disappoint, whether gadgetry or alcohol. Take Stuart, a ne’er-do-well who inherited some money, as well as great looks. He’s thinking of trading in his married lover for a younger woman in the neighborhood, an Asian beauty he imagines to be the victim of the fellow he thinks is her tyrannical father.

She’s the Tigerlily of the title, or so she’s dubbed by the neighborhood gossip, a nogoodnik. Stuart, in turn, is pursued by another resident of the flats who’ll do anything for him. Throw in the alcoholic and the pedophile and Rendell risks misanthropy as she shifts from one less than lovable loser to another. She escapes it here, though she didn’t in “The Rottweiler.’’ The writing in “Tigerlily’’ is particularly wry so it’s hard to take these people completely seriously. Plus the two New Agers, Marius and Rose, are a delightful pair as each realizes they had a one-night stand in their hippie days and wonder whether to acknowledge it to the other. They have their own version of the I Ching in which Marius opens randomly to “Paradise Lost’’ when they can’t decide what to do and reads a sentence for guidance.

Beyond our New Age former lovers, Rendell delves into complex personal and moral issues. Her curiosity about her characters leads her to explore the extent to which one is guilty of sexual sins and racism — the pedophile who only looks; Stuart, who assumes the Asian woman is a submissive victim waiting to be rescued, as opposed to marriageable white women, which he views as “bossy, constantly talking, overemotional, greedy.’’

Rendell could bend the rules of crime fiction even further than she does here. Not that much separates these panoramic novels of contemporary English life from those of the aforementioned Smith except for thematic development. She could go even deeper into the issues she brings up than she does. There’s a “Rappaccini’s Daughter’’ feel to Stuart’s obsession with Tigerlily that doesn’t grow quite Hawthornian.

Still, in both the Rendell books and her Barbara Vine novels she goes a lot further than her best-selling colleagues, which is why such luminaries as Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell rain superlatives on her work. Disgraceful behavior has rarely been written about so gracefully.

Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

TIGERLILY’S ORCHIDS

By Ruth Rendell

Scribner, 257 pp., $26