Ruth Rendell strikes at the subtle heart of crime

Ruth Rendell is “probably the greatest living crime writer” says Ian Rankin, himself no slouch in that genre and creator of one of my favourite detectives, the fabulously flawed John Rebus. She certainly is one of the most prolific including 24 of the highly successful Inspector Wexford series and many more under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. For decades she has been dissecting in minute detail the British with all their foibles and hang-ups, and propensity for strange, if not always illegal, behaviour. Rendell is most at home in the claustrophobic world of small communities in rural England; in particular in peeling back the layers of class and wealth to reveal the core of conflict and criminality.

 In her latest novel, The Girl Next Door, we know whodunit right from the beginning. And what. And why. The discovery of the dismembered, skeletal hands, male and female, in a box, is a typically Rendell flourish, but in this case so much time has passed, police conduct only the most cursory investigation. Rendell is more thorough. She takes us behind the events and into the complex web of relationships in the village, particularly the group of children who regularly played in the tunnels where the box was eventually found.

Rendell is not a shoot ‘em, stab ‘em kind of crime writer (although quite a bit that can go on in her books along with an unhealthy dose of poisoning and strangulation) so she relies heavily on her carefully chiseled characterisation and psychological dissection. Overall, The Girl Next Door is an enjoyable read. The problem for me was that I found it hard to feel sympathetic towards anyone wherever they fell on the guilt spectrum. And maybe that’s it. The world isn’t so simple that we can be easily categorised villains and heroes. Rendell fans will love it.

The Girl Next Door is published by Hutchinson.

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