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Beware the Ruthless Killer

By Michael Sims,
who is editing his second crime anthology for Penguin Classics
Thursday, July 19, 2007

THE WATER'S LOVELY

By Ruth Rendell

Crown. 340 pp. $25.95

Ruth Rendell is dangerous. When she's at her best, you find yourself risking mayhem -- turning pages while walking blindly around furniture or reading in the car at traffic lights until the honking begins. My copy of her new novel, "The Water's Lovely," wound up dog-eared, underlined and coffee-stained. Can a book earn a higher compliment than looking read to death?

At 77, Rendell is in absolute top form here. "The Water's Lovely" is as suspenseful as any crime novel she has written, but it also has the generous humanity of her best Inspector Wexford cases.

This time Rendell's focus has a wider depth of field than usual. Clearly, she is enjoying herself in this dark comedy of manners, and the suspense is tinged with irony.

Characters include a middle-aged woman dangerously gambling on speed-dating and an amoral woman who systematically weasels her way into the last will and testament of elderly victims. A vapid heiress reads a description of herself as a "socialite" and in outrage asks her boyfriend if it means the same as being in the Labor government. Her father "loved the police almost as much as he loved the army and was thrilled to see so many of them carrying guns these days."

At the center of this colorful troupe are sisters Ismay and Heather, who live in a house divided into two generations and two eras: pre- and post-murder. Twelve years ago, at the age of 15, Ismay found her mother's new husband, Guy, drowned in the bath. Weakened by pneumonia, he might have passed out, but if so, why were younger sister Heather's clothes drenched? So mother and sister built Heather an alibi. The sisters avoided discussing the obvious, and over the years their mother sank into schizophrenia.

Years later, when Ismay came home from college, the death scene had been erased by new rooms. Now she and Heather live below, and their mother, tended by her own sister, sits and stares above.

She speaks only to cite dire prophecies from the Book of Revelation. Then Heather meets and starts dating Edmund, a nurse who still lives with his mother. Agonizing over whether to warn him that Heather may be a murderer, Ismay records her account of discovering Guy's body -- and hides the tape.

"In all narration there is only one way to be clever," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, "and that is to be exact." Rendell is clever in many ways, but perhaps they all trace back to Stevenson's rule, because she is exact in both detail and expression. She never forgets that a murderer may dislike tofu or that a blackmailer might sneak to a rendezvous in toe-pinching high heels. When Ismay found Guy's body in the tub, she noticed "his long white hands floating just below the surface of the cooling water." A beggar has a "face like an old handbag, an amalgam of pockets and dents and bloated pores, his teeth brown as tree bark."

Is Heather a killer? If so, why? And why is Ismay's new boyfriend, Andrew, driving the sisters apart? Rendell builds tension out of the situations that make real life suspenseful -- the risk of betrayal, the volatility of the emotionally immature, the interest accruing on banked resentment. Her characters do not exist merely to murder, die or find a corpse. Unlike the tired repertory company recast by so many crime writers, most of Rendell's characters walk onstage as if they are already in the middle of busy lives. They had other plans when they stumbled into trouble.

Not that Rendell is above dragging in a manufactured coincidence, and this book boasts a prizewinner.

But to forbid all coincidence would be to ban Alfred Hitchcock and Wilkie Collins, and why deny ourselves such pleasure? Rendell provides the reader with many pleasures: her intelligence and humanity, her sculpted sentences, her jokeless wit, her refusal to join her colleagues in the torture-porn business to spice up her plots. Oh, yes -- those plots. What a sneaky mind the woman has.

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