Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Books, May 22, 2015

I will never stop missing typing Ron Scheer's name in here.

The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell
(Review by Deb)

Published in late 2014, just a few months prior to her recent death, Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door was the last Rendell book released while she was still alive.  (Apparently, there is at least one additional book slated for posthumous publication.)  Whether Rendell intended it to be her swan song or not, The Girl Next Door is a fitting coda to her fifty-year writing career.  It is a meditation on life, love, aging, loss, and the inevitable compromises that a living a long life brings.  There is a murder-mystery of sorts, but it is virtually irrelevant to the central plot and is a mystery only to the characters in the book; the reader already knows the full story.  The murder functions primarily as a catalyst for bringing a group of seventy-something characters together rather than as a neatly-plotted puzzle.

The book begins in 1944, toward the end of WWII, on the outskirts of London.  Neighborhood youngsters (none yet in their teens) discover the foundations for a house that was never built.  The friends term these foundations the “tunnels” and spend their days playing in them.  This group will meet again, many years in the future.

As the children play, John “Woody” Winwood, a working-class laborer who has managed to improve himself socially by marrying a wealthy woman, kills his wife and her lover, deciding to remove their hands as a macabre trophy.  He places the hands in an empty container and then hides the container in the tunnels.  This is not a spoiler, it occurs within the first few pages of the book. Woody abruptly (and menacingly) warns the children to stay away from the tunnels.  Woody then sends his son Michael to live with a distant relative.  For the rest of their lives, father and son will rarely see each other.

The discovery of the skeletal hands some six decades after they were hidden starts a string of events—some positive, some not so much—as the former friends, many of whom have been out of touch since the end of the war, reconvene to share their memories of those days with the investigating police.  Now the youngsters who played in the tunnels are in their sixties and seventies, long-married or, in some cases, divorced or widowed, with children, grandchildren, and even a few great-grandchildren.  Although the story threads through the lives of a number of friends from the tunnels, primary focus is on Alan and Rosemary Norris and Michael Winwood.

Friends from the tunnel days, Alan and Rosemary have been married to each other for over 50 years.  To the outward eye, their marriage appears happy and placid, but Alan’s contempt for his wife (manifested by his irritation at almost everything she does, particularly sewing her own clothing) is clear to the reader.  When the old tunnel friends reunite, Alan is pulled back into the orbit of the glamorous and alluring Daphne Jones (the titular girl next door from his childhood and his first romantic love), now a wealthy widow with a gorgeous home in a very upscale London district.  (As usual, Rendell excels in descriptions of stately homes and architecture.) 

Within a few weeks, Alan and Daphne are having an affair—a cataclysmic event for the Norris’s marriage, their family, and their circle of friends.  This is not a book that shies away from the sexual side of being a senior citizen; nor does Rendell condescend to her characters or imply that there is something inherently comical about older people enjoying the physical element of romance.  I have not read a book that is so matter-of-fact about sexual attraction amongst older people since Mary Wesley’s Not That Sort of Girl.

Michael Winwood, the other major focus of the story, is now himself a widower.  He mourns his long-dead wife, has a rather casual connection with his adult children, and continues to be haunted by the toxic shadow of his still-living father.  Yes, Woody is still alive at almost 100 years old.  He is very sharp mentally, living in an upscale retirement home (neatly satirized by Rendell).  During most of Michael’s life, he has managed to avoid seeing his father; but, in light of the discovery of the hands, he now must confront him.  This is one of the book’s interesting themes:  Many of us are part of the first generation in history where people in their seventies still have living parents.  How do we relate to those who are our elders when we ourselves are elderly?  Do we ever escape that parent-child dynamic?  The children of the main characters, themselves in their forties and fifties, find themselves asking the same questions.

As might be expected in a book where a number of the characters are well into their golden years, there are a few deaths, but the book is neither depressing nor sorrowful.  Those who survive mourn, but eventually continue with their lives, even if their hearts are broken and things will never be the same.  The murder-mystery (such as it is) is wrapped up in a rather pat fashion, but this book was obviously not intended to be a traditional whodunit.  Admittedly, this is not a forgotten book, but I hope it is one that will be remembered.  If it does not rank up at the top of the great Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine oeuvre, it is still a book worth reading—thoughtful, challenging, and surely a book that Rendell would have been pleased to know would be one of her last.

Sergio Angelini, DEAD MAN'S BAY, Catherine Arley
Yvette Banek, SHEIKS AND ADDERS, Michael Innes
Michael Carlson, SOMETHING IN THE SHADOWS, Vin Packer
Bill Crider, EARTH'S LAST CITADEL, C.L. Moore and Henry Kutner
Martin Edwards, THE JUDAS WINDOW, Carter Dickson
Curt Evans, DEATH COMES TO TEA, Theodora Dubois
Ed Gorman, STRANGER AT HOME, Leigh Brackett
John Hegenberger, THE SAINT AND MR. TEAL, Leslie Charteris
Rich Horton, THE LION'S SHARE, Octave Thanet
Jerry House, MURDER WILL OUT, Murray Leinster
Nick Jones THE HOLMS OAK, P.M Hubbard, 
George Kelley, THE MARKSMAN AND OTHER STORIES, William Campbell Gault
Margot Kinberg, THE DEVIL'S MAKING, Sean Haldane
Rob Kitchin, HANGING VALLEY, Peter Robinson
B.V. Lawson, THE SPOILT KILL, Mary Kelly
Evan Lewis, LADY IN PERIL, Lester Dent
Steve Lewis, TIME TO PREY, Frank Kane
Todd Mason,  Walter M. Miller, Jr.: "Command Performance" (GALAXY, November 1952); "Conditionally Human" (GALAXY February 1952); "MacDoughal's Wife" (THE AMERICAN MERCURY March 1950)
Patrick Murtha. LOST COSMONAUT, Dan Halder
J.F. Norris, THE BLACK STAMP, Will Scott
James Reasoner, PIRATE'S GOLD, H. Bedford Jones
Richard Robinson,  Night Ferry to Death by Patricia Moyes
Gerard Saylor, REDEPLOYMENT,  Phil Klay
Kerrie Smith, CROSS FINGERS, Paddy Richardson
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, OUTRAGE AT BLANCO, Bill Crider
Tomcat, SONG OF A DARK ANGEL Paul Doherty
Prashant Trikannad, THE SPIDER, Hanns Heinz Ewers


TracyK said...

Thanks for the review of The Girl Next Door, Patti. It is the first one I have seen of that book, and I am eager to read it.

And thanks for including my link.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks Patti - some great stuff featured today.

Anonymous said...

As always, love the variety here! And thanks for including mine :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds quite complicated.

J F Norris said...

Can you change my link? I just finished proofing it and posted it:

The Black Stamp by Will Scott

Thanks for putting up with me and my usual tardiness, Patti. :^)

Todd Mason said...

Finally all done...

"Command Performance" (GALAXY, November 1952); "Conditionally Human" (GALAXY February 1952); "MacDoughal's Wife" (THE AMERICAN MERCURY March 1950) by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Thanks to everyone, and particularly Patti, for such a fine list this week.

Yvette said...

A great list (why am I not surprised).
I did one this week too, Patti.

Brian Busby said...

I understand your feelings about Ron, Patti. You miss typing his name and I miss reading it. His was always the first contribution I read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved his blog too. I miss hearing about western jargon in particular.

Patrick Murtha said...

The link to my entry is broken. It is:

It's a short piece about offbeat travel books, Daniel Kalder's "Lost Cosmonaut" and Riccardo Orozio "Lost White Tribes," both of which are simply great reads.