Thriller probes social ills

Book review: 'Tigerlily's Orchids,' by Ruth Rendell. Scribner, $26.

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Multilayered social issues come into play in Ruth Rendell's latest psychological crime novel:

Drugs, alcoholism, pedophilia, human trafficking, domestic violence, alienation and old-fashioned jealousy.

There's a murder, but it doesn't occur until more than halfway through, and then the police, although they halfheartedly investigate it, have nothing to do with discovering who the killer is. In fact, it's not clear who's going to be the sleuth -- or even the central character.

That's one of the miracles of Ms. Rendell's marvelous creative imagination. She sets up unlikely characters in unlikely situations, has them act in the most unlikely ways and takes her plot in the most unlikely and unexpected directions at every turn. Yet at the end it all seems to have been logical and believable.

Here, we're in a lower middle class North London suburb, meeting the inhabitants of a six-unit apartment called Lichfield House. Apartment No. 1 has been bought by Stuart Font, a handsome and irresponsible young man who has recently come into a small inheritance, which he is squandering on beautiful blond Claudia who's married to a prominent lawyer, Freddy Livorno.

The other owners include:

A John Milton scholar; a New Age healer, who may or may not remember that she and the scholar enjoyed a one-night stand in the wild and crazy 1960s; a nonpracticing physician who writes inaccurate information in a newspaper column on health; three single women sharing an apartment by way of the generosity of one of their fathers; and an elderly woman who has decided to drink herself to death.

There is also a custodian in the basement flat, and across the road, Duncan Yeardon, a retired auto repairman who imagines his neighbors' lives in fantasies that bear no relation to reality.

Stuart invites his fellow residents plus Duncan to a housewarming party. Claudia insists on being invited, too, not knowing that Freddy has planted listening devices in her mobile phone and has hacked into her email.

The husband follows Claudia to the party and beats Stuart with a cudgel. The plot gets going when Stuart espies a beautiful young Asian woman who lives in the house attached to Duncan's. He becomes obsessed with the mysterious new woman, dubbing her Tigerlily and befriending Duncan so that he may observe her.

As this page-turner develops, the comedy grows blacker and blacker. Ambulances abound on this street, although when someone is maimed or killed, no one else cares.

Each vividly drawn individual goes his or her own way and Lichfield House may be the only real survivor.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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