Nobody does North London squalor better than Ruth Rendell. Describing in vivid detail the cultural sewer in which a monster named Teddy Brex grows up, she uses hideous furniture, slovenly housekeeping habits, even his mother's diet while pregnant to root us in the setting's hopeless ugliness. In contrast, Rendell introduces people and places of stunning beauty: Francine, a mentally fragile girl who became mute after witnessing her mother's murder; and Orcadia Cottage, scene of a famous painting that is at the center of much of the story's anguish. "It was far and away the most beautiful place he had ever seen," Rendell writes when Teddy--a gifted woodcrafter--first views the cottage. "The proportions of this hall, this room... the windows, the walls, the carpets, the flowers, the furniture, the paintings, all of it dazzled him."
Teddy is another of Rendell's frightening moral cripples, a seemingly ordinary person capable of the vilest crimes. When he becomes obsessed with Francine after meeting her at art school, we know to expect murder--we just aren't sure when, or who will be the victim. Equally vile is Julia, Francine's stepmother, a psychologist of such immense and malevolent ineptness that we would swear she couldn't possibly exist if real life hadn't taught us otherwise. Other important characters are Harriet, a faded beauty who connects the past to the present; Teddy's uncle Keith, who first recognizes the boy's madness; and a bright red, lovingly restored Edsel, which becomes a hearse.
Like all of her books, Rendell's latest is really about the secret acts of insanity that occur behind closed doors. Among her best books available in paperback are From Doon with Death, A Guilty Thing Surprised, The Keys to the Street, and, from the excellent Inspector Wexford series, Kissing the Gunner's Daughter, Road Rage, and Simisola. --Dick Adler
From Publishers Weekly
A pair of English teens, Teddy and Francine (who have grown up in dysfunctional families where common parenting faults are taken to extremes), meet and think that in each other they might find the beauty and freedom their own lives are lacking. Their troubled affair takes a while to get going, but once it does, Rendell's sharp characterizations and idiosyncratic descriptions are riveting. Though several deaths occur in the book, the only real mystery is that of the murder of Francine's mother, which Francine overheard (near the novel's beginning) when she was seven. Instead, Rendell (Road Rage, etc.) focuses more on how a few sedately bizarre ticks can build exponentially into insanity. Francine's stepmother, for example, progresses from simple worry about her stepdaughter's well-being to obsessive anxiety that borders on dementia. Rendell follows the story's principal objects as closely as she does its characters: the diamond and sapphire engagement ring that Teddy's indifferent mother finds in a public bathroom; the video case in which Francine's mother hid her love letters, the painting of two young lovers that shows Teddy the perfect beauty he would kill for. Rendell leaves nothing and no one unaccounted for, from the looks given by the neighbors over the fence to the idle thoughts that pass through characters' minds when they scan a room. A tour-de-force of psychological suspense, the novel culminates in a dramatic climax that's as unforgettable as what has preceded it. Mystery Guild main selection; Literary Guild featured alternate; simultaneous audio and large print editions; author tour.
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