I have not read many of Ruth Rendell’s probing mysteries, but this one sounded irresistible. It has made great summer reading!
Set in the northern London suburb—or outer urban area—of Kenilworth, Tigerlily’s Orchidss (272 pages, Scribner, $26) first and foremost offers a staggering social commentary on the place and the people living there. The story centers on a block of flats—an apartment building in American parlance—where there are six apartments and six very strange stories. In addition to the six sets of tenants, there is a couple in a care-taking flat below the ground floor, and there are folks living in a couple of buildings across the street, two of which are single family homes. At the corner is a shop run by a Pakistani, and not too far away, there is a Tesco, the parent company of our “Fresh and Easy.”
Rendell may be writing a murder mystery, but no one is murdered until two-thirds of the way through. That results in a funny version of who-done-it: that question now shifts to who will be the murder victim.
There are several characters among which to choose. The drunk Olwen, the divorcee living in one of the top flats, wanders on unsteady feet back and forth to Mr. Ali’s shop whenever her supply of gin or vodka—she hardly cares which—runs out, in hopes of being allowed, finally, to drink herself to death.
The caretaker’s wife has an eagle eye and she loves gossip, with the result that none of Olwen’s bottles are lost on her. But she might look closer to home: her pasty and overweight husband spends his time gazing at child pornography when he isn’t leering at schoolchildren from a nearby graveyard.
There are also three young university girls—Naar, Sophie, and Molly—who are doing anything but their schoolwork, at least as far as we can tell. They have trouble understanding anything about their seniors around the building, but that doesn’t stop them getting deeply involved in their affairs.
Across the street, the middle-aged widower Duncan watches all this activity avidly, but he never really understands what he sees. Still he can take pleasure in the warmth of his house—all three floors of it—which his powerful central heating and superb insulation have made toasty all through the winter.
Next to Duncan there is a mysterious house of strangers. No one knows the family of Asians who lives there, and no one, Duncan especially, understands their relation to one another or what they are doing there. Duncan posits a complicated set of relations, but he singles out the gorgeous younger girl as Tigerlily. He thinks it suits her eastern inscrutability.
Stuart Font, the dashing young buck who lives in Flat #1, is also taken with the young Asian. He is having an affair with the seductive Claudia, a married woman, who seems to take the lead on their meetings and insists on his attachment to her. As that affair becomes more complicated, Stuart would like to extricate himself. He is slightly put off by Claudia, and he has lost interest in her once he encountered Tigerlily in a local shop. And besides, Claudia’s thuggish lawyer husband has gotten wind of her affair with Stuart, and he wants to teach them both a lesson.
Phew! There are even more characters then this, and Rendell interweaves their lives in astonishing ways. In a sense, it hardly matters who is killed because the social commentary is so rich and wonderful.
But of course it does matter, and this side of things is handled as impeccably as you might expect from someone of Ruth Rendell’s stunning record.
Tigerlily's Orchids is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.