It can be argued, and many people do, that British author Ruth Rendell is one of the most influential writers of mysteries and police procedurals of the past 30 years. She is the creator of the iconic Inspector Wexford, featured in more than 25 novels. Ms. Rendell is famous for her elegant prose, her social conscience, and most importantly, her keen insight into people. It’s been said that she and her friend P.D. James “upgraded the genre of the whodunit into the whydunit”. As a result of her unique blend of skills, she is the recipient of the most coveted awards for mystery writers. She has also been awarded the C.B.E. or Commander of the British Empire for her work.
Tigerlily’s Orchids is a splendid example of Ms. Rendell’s work. The story takes place in a London apartment building. I was reminded a little of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rear Window, with the reader as L.B. Jeffries observing his neighbors as their eccentricities are revealed.
This is a story of secrets, as most stories are. Some are heartbreaking: One is Olwen, whose only goal in life is to be able to drink as much gin as she wants until she dies. Some are perverse: the caretaker who desperately hides his unholy longing. Some are mysterious: who is the beautiful Asian girl hidden in the house across the street? We have old lovers who may or may not remember each other, a not-so-secret affair, a young thief, and the sighing of unrequited love. Finally, we have a murder.
Rendell offers us a fascinating, and sometimes humorous glimpse into the minds of her characters. Of course, each thinks that his or her actions, no matter how rotten, are completely justifiable, and the process by which they absolve themselves can be amusing. One example is Sophia, who goes from buying gin for Olwen at a carrying charge of ₤10.00 per trip to steadily emptying her pension account. She begins by blaming Olwen for being out of touch and ends by blaming her roommates for having boyfriends.
Complex, darkly ironic, and elegantly plotted, Tigerlily’s Orchids proves that at 81, Ruth Rendell continues to ensnare us in her spell.
Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell (Scribner $26.00 Hardcover,
9780385668880, June 14, 2011)
Published with permission of Shelf Awareness