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.
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.