Ruth Rendell's latest stand-alone psychological mystery, Tigerlily's Orchids, is set in a north London neighborhood and focuses more on the characters than on the murder.
Each resident in Litchfield House has an obsession, from the self-absorption of the young, handsome, and newly rich Stuart to the pedophile urges of the caretaker, Wally. When the neighbors gather at Stuart's flat-warming party, they barely know each other, but the events of that evening set off a year-long downward spiral of exposed secrets, murder, and death, forever linking the group.
Tigerlily's Orchids is a textbook example of the power of showing instead of telling. Through Rendell's attention to detail and use of changing view points, readers learn the innermost desires of each individual as well as his or her public image. For example, we meet Olwen, the sixty-year-old widow in flat 6, who has waited her whole life to be in the position to drink as much as she wanted, and in fact, she hopes to drink herself to death. Olwen believes it's her right to do as she pleases, although she didn't figure on becoming too infirm to buy her own gin. When she finally has to ask the other residents to deliver her booze to her door, readers see Olwen in a different light--as a drunk whose addiction can be exploited.
The murder comes late to the book, and although the victim is easy to predict, the perpetrator is not. Fortunately, readers expecting a straightforward suspense thriller will find they are more interested in the story of the neighborhood than they are in the death. In fact, the solution is almost incidental.
Tigerlily's Orchids is an engaging character study but is not without flaws. The murder has unexpected and far-reaching effects among the characters, but Rendell spends little time on its investigation or on the investigation of other exposed crimes. In addition, some plot lines are followed too closely, whereas others are left too much to the reader's imagination. Finally, although trivial, readers may wonder why a secondary character like Tigerlily warranted title billing.
Despite the few weaknesses, Tigerlily's Orchids will appeal to Rendell fans and fans of psychological thrillers and character studies.
My review of the unabridged audio edition (Simon & Schuster, 7 hr, 50 min), nicely read by Nickolas Grace, will be published by AudioFile magazine.
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