The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell

Sunday Times, 10 August 2014

Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £9.99 pp288

Ruth Rendell is one of the world’s leading crime novelists. Since her first book was published in 1964, she has won dozens of awards, seen her work adapted for tele-vision and cinema, and become a life peer. This summer, she has chosen to mark her half century as an author with a novel — her 65th full-length one — that takes her back to her Essex roots.

Although her best-known novels are set in the fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham, Rendell has always been a superb observer of the suburbs. The Girl Next Door is set in Loughton, on the edge of Epping Forest, where she went to school. It is one of those liminal places, not quite London but not the “real” countryside either, which she writes about ­brilliantly. Her other great strength — small changes in language that reflect big changes in social attitudes — is on show in a novel that switches between the 1940s and the present.

The book opens during the Second World War. Some of the characters could easily have been Rendell’s school friends, and she effortlessly recalls the close-to-careless ­attitudes towards children in wartime. As adults come and go, a group of children play in a series of tunnels, not realising that they are the foundations of a half-built house. Rendell gets a couple of murders out of the way at the beginning, employing stark prose that reflects the casual ­dispatch of a wife and her lover by her psychopathic husband. The killer takes a gruesome souvenir, the couple’s severed hands, and conceals them in a biscuit tin that he buries in the children’s tunnels. The girl next door, Daphne Jones, sees the husband carry two heavy bundles into a summerhouse and set fire to them, but she is too scared to tell anyone what she has seen.

Seven decades later, the tin is found by builders and the police open a desultory inquiry. The investigation is an excuse to bring together the kids who played in the tunnels, most of them now grandparents or great-grandparents. They don’t think they have much to tell the police, but the reunion sets off dramatic events. One of the men is so bowled over by meeting Daphne again that he leaves his wife for her.

Rendell understands the difference between how people appear to outsiders and their turbulent inner worlds; it is this disjunction that leads to so many of the crimes in her fiction. She has always been acutely aware of the passage of time, and never more so than in this novel.

Rendell herself is in her mid-eighties. Fifty years on, the girl from Essex has become the unchallenged crime queen of suburbia. Her powers of observation are as acute as ever, and she writes about old age with as much gusto as any of the subjects she has tackled in her long career.

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