By Ruth Rendell. Crown. 339 pp. $25
No one in Inez's seedy London neighborhood is exactly what he (or she) seems. Until now Inez, who runs an antique store and stretches her income by taking in boarders, has remained fairly impervious to this fact. Inez appears to be a simple soul whose emotional life is still devoted to her dead husband. An actor, he played a wise and kind detective on a television series, and Inez consoles herself by viewing his old tapes again and again -- not noticing, for instance, that Zeinab, her beautiful Indian employee, is not the frivolous gold digger she seems to be but a mother of two with an extant boyfriend, whom she supports by hocking her many gifts from lovesick men.
Inez's tenants -- the handsome Will, who's afflicted with fragile X syndrome (the most common inherited cause of mental retardation), and the gregarious Freddy Perfect, who hails from Barbados and lives with Ludmilla Gogol, and the enigmatic bachelor Jeremy Quick -- all conceal major glitches in their lives. One of them, in fact, is a serial killer.
The bodies of young girls keep turning up all around the neighborhood. The murderer likes to steal little trinkets from his victims, baubles like earrings or cigarette lighters, and these winsome artifacts keep turning up in Inez's shop. The cops, predictably stupid, turn up as well.
The reader already knows who the murderer is; that becomes clear on Page 104. So it seems unusually scandalous when the police finger poor Will for the crime. Meanwhile, a minor character named Anwar, a seemingly well-brought-up Indian teenager, puts together an unsavory gang that picks Inez's building for its very first heist. Wouldn't you know it? They find some more of those incriminating trinkets the murderer likes to collect and set about blackmailing him.
The murderer, who is quite intelligent, doesn't know why he's killed all those girls. He spends quite a few pages wondering. It must have something to do with his childhood, but what can it be? He adores his loving mother, so it must have something to do with his diseased father. Or it might involve a memory of one of his father's old girlfriends. And on and on.
Meanwhile, Zeinab juggles two suitors while her boyfriend sits mournfully at home. An enormous diamond is mysteriously lost. Will becomes so traumatized by his encounter with the ham-handed cops that he cannot speak and must live for a while with his selfish aunt, who turns out to be an alcoholic. The young gang of toughs manages to extort quite a lot of money from the murderer.
Ruth Rendell has already written 50 novels -- that's leaving out nonfiction and volumes of short stories -- and she has this mystery form down pat. Her strength comes not from the crimes committed, the clues left around to be discovered or the thrill of any particular chase, but from the numbing comfort of daily life. Almost everyone here gets up and goes to work, though they don't work very hard. Even Zeinab, who's late every day, shows up. The Indian jewelry merchant next door unwinds his awning every day and makes a formal little bow for Inez. The police seem totally incapable of making a right move and get on everyone's nerves tremendously, but they are diligent in their dumbness; they keep showing up. And sometimes someone goes to a movie or opens a book (which in this case serves as a signal for a massive change in Inez's life) instead of turning on the television. That's about it, in terms of action.
"The Rottweiler" is meant to be read a chapter at a time just before bed. It won't scare you; it won't keep you up. It will, perhaps, impart a certain benign drowsiness, a sense of well-being. Yes, a murderer may be about, but if you don't go out alone at night dressed like a hooker, you won't be apt to meet him -- and in this particular case the guy seems so harmless that teenagers don't think twice about stealing him blind.
The nice truth is: No one gets hurt in Ruth Rendell's world. No one feels the pain of loss or the bite of evil. No one feels one little goose bump of fear. Rendell is a tremendously popular novelist because nothing bad ever happens in her books. The dead bodies tend to be people whose names we never caught.
And no one here is depressingly smart. Even Inez is triumphantly ordinary. She sees things that the police don't, but only because she keeps her eyes open. Her life is calm, respectable. She doesn't snoop, like Miss Marple. She simply allows life to happen to her.
Which is another powerful and appealing fantasy. What if we could just hang out, and life would collar us, bring us murder, mayhem, fairly good company and ultimately true love, without our having to lift a proverbial finger? That would be very, very pleasant, and Rendell knows it.