BOOK REVIEW / Odd jobs and strange tales: 'The Crocodile Bird' - Ruth Rendell: Hutchinson, 14.99 pounds

The mystery about this one is that it's not a Barbara Vine. It has next to no detective element and centres on the psychosocial complications favoured by Ruth Rendell's alter ego. Sixteen-year-old Liza is given some money by her mother Eve and told to go make her way to a friend of Eve's in London, problem being that the police have just paid a call to the little guesthouse where mother and daughter have always lived, on a remote West Country estate, and Eve is liable to be booked for murder in the morning.

Liza, who has never been further than the nearest small town, ignores instructions, and runs to find Sean, the young estate gardener she's secretly been sleeping with, at his caravan. As they spend the autumn travelling around apple-picking and otherwise odd-jobbing, Liza tells Sean the story of her curious upbringing and her wonderful but just occasionally homicidal mother - now on remand, according to the papers. Uncertain how shocked he is going to be, she breaks it to him an episode at a time, 'like Sheherezade', she says. 'She-who?' says Sean.

Rendell fills us in on the same pattern, dialogue revelations in the caravan leading to old-fashioned flashback narrative. It is a very mechanical and artificial method of proceeding, often used by hack authors because of its possibilities for the calculated management of tension and often unsuccessful because of its formal obviousness. Still, Homer did something like it; and Rendell, though a bewilderingly prolific writer with a chokehold on station and airport bookstalls so lucrative that she is now a corporation for tax purposes, clearly counts as more than a hack. Despite our awareness of the creaky old ploy she makes it work like a charm.

The situation between teller and listener, Liza and Sean, really does call for a careful bit-by-bit approach. Liza, given an illegal but rigorous classical education by Eve, has never been to school or had any friends. Her TV-watching, all in the usually unoccupied big house on the estate, has been covert and patchy because Eve implicitly banned TV by omitting to mention its existence.

She has never been told who her father was, though she has her suspicions, which turn out to be dramatically off the mark. Her real name is Eliza and she wonders if Eve was thinking of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. 'Come again?' says Sean. She explains. 'Sounds like My Fair Lady to me,' he says. She's never heard of that.

Eve's project was to make Eliza like herself as she 'should have been' but for an upset which she never mentioned and which Liza only discovers when the papers cover the trial. Eve's misdeeds anchor the structure but the book works as Bildungsroman rather than thriller, the fascination lying in the growth of Liza's mind under these unusual conditions. Since things are seen through a child's eyes we have the estate owner's corduroy trousers described as 'fawn stuff like the ribbing on a jumper' and a record noted as 'something called Mozart'. Talking to the reader over the character's head like this can become arch and faux-naif, and it does, but not to a ruinous extent. Rendell has a safe pair of craftsmanlike hands.

The Sheherezade motif hints ironically that here the listener may be in danger from the teller rather than the other way round. A specious way to crank up some ordinary plotty tension, it also contains something cleverer, a gradual intimation that even if this strange and appealing Liza were to go wrong in a murderous direction like her mother, we would still be in helpless sympathy with her. After which realisation it hardly matters in literary terms whether she does or not.

Rendell is not always this good: her last outing as Barbara Vine, King Solomon's Carpet, achieved an unintentional hilariousness with its catalogue of doom in West Hampstead, and she still shows scant sign of the sense of humour that novelists strictly need. The dialogue I've quoted is about the limit of it. Even so, The Crocodile Bird (Eliza pictures her mother and herself in symbiosis like the croc and the little bird it permits to pick its teeth unharmed) is a strong performance that should spoil the trains-and-planes readership rotten.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?