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Tigerlily's Orchids, By Ruth Rendell

Jane Jakeman
Friday 20 August 2010 00:00 BST

Ruth Rendell's novels of London amount to a modern cultural history of the city – a fictional urban archaeology of Holland Park in the hippie-chick era, redbrick terraces before and after the attentions of the "property ladder". Now she turns her sharp powers of observation on to a small suburban block of private flats, very precisely located in the social scale, too far away from the centre to be really expensive, just a cut above council housing. Rendell charts the local changes in sharp detail: the closure of the local off-licence, the problems of Mr Ali's corner shop.

As for the inhabitants of the flats, they are at first glance perfectly ordinary people. But trust Rendell to take a second look – and behold, this is an extraordinary bunch: a young doctor with a semi-disastrous career as a newspaper medical consultant, a middle-aged woman in the process of cheerfully drinking herself to death, a caretaker with deeply unpleasant habits.

And there's young Stuart, good-looking, self-confident – the kind of man other men hate on sight. Rendell stirs some outsiders into this mix: the husband of Stuart's cold-hearted mistress, a beautiful oriental girl with bruises on her arms who is glimpsed in the garden next door: the "Tigerlily" of the title. How will their lives mesh together?

It's not much of a surprise, nor really intended, that they come together through Stuart's murder, following a party. There are plenty of candidates for killer, and tension is created by following the various possibilities as each character tries to carry on after the crucial event of his death. The most trustworthy is Duncan, an elderly widower, whose flat is always mysteriously warm. From his flat, he can keep watch on the peculiar household next door, but his naivety protects him from any sinister conclusions – until the end.

Rendell juggles with several mysteries. As well as the problem of Stuart's murderer, and that of the strange oriental characters, we follow the thread of a young woman drawn into petty crime. A fourth strand is supplied by a tenant who was an admirer of the handsome Stuart and finds herself homeless, reduced to living with an unsavoury young man in an attic. Out of this spider's web of interwoven lives emerges the truth of Stuart's murder – a beautifully disguised and manipulated surprise, set amid the jittery background of the restless city.

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