Rendell, Ruth. The Girl Next Door.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

This was Rendell’s next-to-last novel — her 65th in fifty years of published work — and it’s a good one. It’s marketed as a “murder mystery,” but that’s not really true since we know from the outset who killed the adulterous young wife and her lover back in the summer of 1944.

But the murder, and the rediscovery of the victims’ amputated hands as symbolic revenge, is really only the catalyst that brings back together in an ensemble drama the now-elderly Londoners who played together as kids in the last year of the war: Michael, Alan, Rosemary (whom Alan eventually married), Lewis (who became a doctor), and the Batchelor kids, most of whom later shared in a construction firm. And Daphne, of course, the precocious sexual focus of the group, and “the girl next door.” They all played in the “tunnels” on the hill all that summer until a parent chased them away.

It was Michael Winwood’s mother who disappeared and he was told by his father that she had run off. And then he himself was shunted off to live with an aunt. Now Michael is a widower in his eighties who still hasn’t come to terms with his wife’s death, and his father, John, whom he hasn’t seen in sixty years, is nearing his hundredth birthday. After having done some laboring as a young man, John resolved never to work at a job again, and he found three wealthy wives to allow him to do that, as we learn as the story progresses, with the ex-kids remembering their youth and rediscovering their old playmates, and the young detective deciding none of this really matters because everybody’s old anyway.

Much of the book, though, focuses on Alan, whose life, as he sees it, “hadn’t been unhappy, only dull.” And when he meets up with Daphne again after many years, he wants only to resume their torrid affair from before he married Rosemary. His wife doesn’t deal well with being abandoned (she has trouble accepting change of any kind) but she’ll eventually learn to cope with it — and Alan will come to regret that. The author uses the relationships of Alan, Rosemary, and Daphne especially to make a distinction between growing old and growing up, and watching the group interact can be uncomfortable for an older reader — which tells me that Rendell pretty much nailed it. It’s not at all a conventional thriller and it’s a good one for the author to be going out with.

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