BookBrowse Reviews The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell

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The Girl Next Door

A Novel

by Ruth Rendell

The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell X
The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2015, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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The discovery of bones in a tin box sends shockwaves across a group of long-time friends in The Girl Next Door.

If you don't usually like mysteries, you will like this one. I can say that with a certain degree of confidence because The Girl Next Door is more character study than mystery. Although as a longtime mystery and Rendell fan I can say, also, that this is a very satisfying whodunnit. Okay. Truth be told it really is more of a whogotit – as in, who is it that was murdered? – because from the very beginning we know who committed the dastardly deed, and why.

The story begins at the beginning. It's the late 1930s and John (Woody) Winwood is a very handsome young guy who marries Anita, the strikingly beautiful boss's daughter. "'You judge everybody by their appearance,' said his wife. 'That's all that counts with you.'" He replies, "'I judged you by yours. What else is there?'"

Clearly, looks alone don't make a marriage and, ere long, the couple becomes coldly indifferent to one another, despite the fact that they have a lovely home in Loughton, in the south of England, and a son, Michael. But Woody is just the most despicable person who treats everyone from charwoman to his own child with contempt. Then, in the waning days of World War II, he catches Anita cheating on him and decides that he must put a stop to the cuckoldry. Divorce is out of the question – he has to get his hands on Anita's inheritance – so he dispatches the lovers in bed, his and Anita's own bed.

As a bit of British black humor, he amputates one of each of their hands, clasps them together as if in an embrace and buries the grim diorama in a biscuit tin in an abandoned underground area nearby – which neighborhood children called "the qanats" or tunnels. In order to keep his ugly secret, he scolds Michael and his friends who frequently play in the tunnels, telling them to stay away. Later, he disposes of the remainder of the lovers' bodies, consigns Michael's care to a cousin, sells the house and moves on to woo another wealthy woman. It appears he has gotten away with murder.

Fast-forward some sixty-plus years. Modern day Loughton is still home to a few of Michael Winwood's childhood friends, but most have moved on and out, lost touch with each other. Now in their 70s, the group is largely still hale and as hearty as can be expected given their advanced age. Michael is widowed, as is Lewis Newman. Next door neighbor Daphne Furness, nee Jones, is thrice divorced. Alan Norris is married 50+ years to the former Rosemary Wharton and three of the Batchelor brothers are still around. Oh, and ninety-nine-year-old Woody is living the life of Riley in a posh retirement home.

Then a construction crew unearths a shortbread biscuit box containing the remains of two hands. Talk about a cold case.

This is where Rendell shines. Her characterization of the former childhood friends, their impromptu reunion in the company of the police regarding the history of the qanats/tunnels, their interaction with each other and the ensuing resurrection of old loves, losses, hurts and happenings are pure genius. For a lesser writer, juggling such an ensemble cast would be clumsy. Rendell pulls it off, drawing us into each person's life with wit and ease. She craftily pokes gentle fun at the legendary British reserve. Following a particularly jarring occurrence she writes, "Priding themselves on their stoicism, Alan and Daphne pretended to each other that they were unaffected by what had happened." And when a character is confounded by a neighbor's behavior she, "didn't know what to think about that so she didn't think about it."

In Rendell's practiced hands this is so much more than a mystery. It is so much greater than the sum of its body parts and cannily placed clues. It is about the stuff that draws people together, tears lives asunder and forces people to reexamine long held beliefs. I have been fan of the now-deceased Ruth Rendell for most of my adult life and have never been disappointed by one of her books. This one is classic Rendell – classy Rendell – delivering on the promise of great British storytelling.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in January 2015, and has been updated for the July 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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