Ruth Rendell, “Tigerlily’s Orchids”

OK, here’s a question. You pick up a new Ruth Rendell mystery, let’s say Tigerlily’s Orchids. The first character you meet, Olwen, is lucidly determined to drink herself to death. And furthermore, “On the whole Olwen was indifferent to other people or else she disliked them…” Do you find that attitude refreshing, or are you aghast? I’m not giving much away by telling you that Olwen eventually has her way and that the process, described with Rendell’s customary calm, is not attractive. So now you’re warned.

Edmond Texier, 1852

Cross-section of a Parisian apartment house by Edmond Texier, 1852

One of qualities I enjoy about Rendell’s work is exactly that calm. She doesn’t editorialize about Olwen. Nor about the incredibly handsome but vapid Stuart Font. Nor about Wally Scurlock, the venal caretaker for the North London apartment block called Lichfield House where the novel takes place. Watch out for the names, though. They tend to supply auras for characters, like the wealthy young girl named Noor, rumored to be dating an Indian prince. (Reminds you of Queen Noor of Jordan, perhaps?) The funny thing is that most rumors in Tigerlily’s Orchids are wrong. Most of the judgments made by the characters about their fellows are also wrong. This is a novel of miscommunication and misapprehension. Oh, yes, it’s also a murder mystery, but that’s easy to forget. There are various feints at physical mayhem and various skullduggery and bad behavior and certainly a puzzle that needs to be solved. But the victim had almost slipped my mind when the solution to his death presented itself.

I got a big kick out of the structure of the novel. The link among the characters is the apartment block itself, placing Tigerlily’s Orchids in a tradition that goes back into the nineteenth century. For instance, Emile Zola’s Pot-Bouille (usually translated as Pot Luck) follows the entwined lives of a group of apartment dwellers. In Rendell’s hands the device feels like one of those clever cartoons exposing a cross-section of a multi-dwelling building and catching the inhabitants in private moments. For instance:

Claudia Livorno came through the swing doors, carrying a bottle of Verdicchio and walking gingerly because the step outside was icy and her heels were high. She rang the bell of Flat 1.

Olwen had nothing in Flat 6 to eat except bread and jam, so she ate that and, when she woke up from her long afternoon sleep, started on a newly opened bottle of gin… In the flat below hers, Marius Potter was sitting in an armchair that had belonged to his grandmother reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the second time.

See? Fun! Oh, and by the way, no character is named Tigerlily, and there are no orchids.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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