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
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn