By Ruth Rendell. Crown publishing. 336 pages. $25.
Ask any crime fiction aficionado for a list of the genre's best writers and chances are high that Ruth Rendell's name will appear near the top. The London-based psychological suspense author has been writing steadily for 40 years, beginning with 1964's A Doon with Death. The number of awards to her name would fill an entire living room and a large part of the next room over.
I'd go on, but you get my drift: Rendell's considered to be one of the genre's greats, someone whose influence will be felt many years after her passing.
The Rottweiler, whose American publication is, mystifyingly, a mere 19 months after its UK launch, certainly demonstrates why such accolades are deserved. Rendell's prose is incisive and clear, peeling away the complex layers that her characters, no matter how ordinary they appear, actually possess. Everybody has something to hide, whether he or she knows it or not. Rendell also takes the serial killer novel and twists its now-tired cliches into something altogether different and far more unusual.
And yet, something's missing.
The ingredients are all present, beginning with the claustrophobic setting of the antiques shop and upstairs flats owned by Inez Ferry. By day, she runs the store while keeping a close eye on her employee Zeinab, an "Asian Babe" who flaunts her simultaneous wooing of two rich older men in pursuit of false matrimony. By night, Inez keeps alive her memories of her dead husband, a noted TV detective, and tries to keep her nose out of the suspicious doings of her tenants. What of Will Cobbett, the beautiful young man who has the intellect of a ten-year-old, and his long-suffering Aunt Becky, desperate for a chance at love? Or Jeremy Quick, claiming a sick wife to support? What is Ludmila, the pale young woman with a pseudo-Balkan accent, really up to? Or Freddy, her lover, who spends more time in Inez's shop instead of his own flat across town?
There's a curious disconnect between Rendell's original intentions for the novel and what's present on the page. It wasn't until the denouement was approaching that the connections clicked together: she's trying to be funny. Sometimes it works, especially when Zeinab appears - her scheming and duplicity lends a delicious flavor to the story. But too often, the would-be black humor falls flat because Rendell would rather mock her creations instead of letting them be. That the killer is the most hapless character is certainly ironic, and often amusing, but it isn't all that believable.
Ultimately, Rendell's exercise in post-modern, hyper-ironic crime fiction may not have been the best starting point for Rendell neophytes like myself. Others may be advised to try her Inspector Wexford novels or one-offs like A Judgment in Stone. I'm certainly looking forward to giving those earlier books a try.
Sarah Weinman writes about crime fiction each month for The Sun. She may be reached at her weblog, "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" at www.sarahweinman.com.