Ruth Rendell – a.k.a the Baroness Rendell of Babergh – is one of the few living iconic crime writers of the old “Agatha Christie” school of mystery writing. A writer with a prolific output of serial and stand-alone novels over the past 50 years, there are few people who wouldn’t have come across Ruth Rendell via one of her many novels or through the many film and TV adaptations of her work.
In her long-standing career Rendell has invented one of the most well-known protagonist of crime stories, Chief Inspector Wexford – and has tackled a large range of issues via the medium of the “whodunit.” Rendell’s latest novel The Girl Next Door therefore comes encumbered with a substantial legacy and some unavoidably high expectations.
The plot of The Girl Next Door revolves around a group of childhood friends living in a small village during 1940s war-torn England. Left to their own devices, the children discover a series of unusual tunnels, which they call “qanats” and which become their special place for playing. Small town dramas unfold, and a callous and vain killer murders two people, a woman and a man, chops off their hands and buries them in a biscuit tin. Sixty-something years later the tin is discovered by the “qanats” – actually the basement of a building site – and a tired policeman is charged with unravelling the mystery of the buried hands. The group of friends – now all adults in their early seventies – come together once again to inform the officer of what they know of the tunnels and the village of their childhood, and in the process re-connect with each other.
The Girl Next Door is not really a “whodunnit”, as the very first chapter of the novel reveals who the murderer is. Instead, the emphasis is on what happens once the long-forgotten hands have been discovered. The finding of the hands serves as a catalyst for the personal dramas that unfold within the group of ex-friends, as old memories come to the fore, and old love and hatred resurfaces. Much of the novel seems an exploration of old age, as loss, regret and “what ifs” surface among the group of friends – and while death is an issue that frames the narrative, it is not death from violent murder that Rendell is exploring here.
Rendell has a good grasp on her characters, and her prose is measured and accomplished. And while the author is certainly skilled at taking a group of characters and melding them together, at the end there is a sense of “much ado about nothing”. While there are some interesting personal development, showing that sometimes a big-shake up is all that’s needed to change your life drastically – even in your seventies – the novel is more a series of domestic dramas than a crime thriller. The plot moves along at a gentle, sometimes excessively repetitive pace, and ends up at a place where none of the characters – and ultimately the reader – seem too moved by the outcome.
Long-standing fans of Ruth Rendell’s writing may nevertheless find a comforting reminder of the trademark skills of the writer in The Girl Next Door – and for those readers who enjoy a placid exploration of the very real human issues of hindsight, regret and “growing up”, this novel could offer some interesting and thought-provoking moments.