Rendell is back with one of the most enjoyable novels of her career in a frisson produced from her unique blend of elegant prose and brutal plotting. Readers will laugh out loud at her acidic humor and astute social observations. Solidly structured, and endlessly dark, The Girl Next Door’s center is the brutal murder by money-grabbing John “Woody” Winwood of his wife Anita and her lover, “the one in uniform.”
When handsome Woody walks into his kitchen to get money out of the biscuit tin to pay his charlady, Mrs. Mopp, he stumbles upon his wife holding the hand of the soldier. He murders them, cuts off their hands and places them in the biscuit tin, but not before putting their bodies in bed-sheet shrouds and stowing them in the summerhouse. He then packs his young son, Michael, off to an aunt down south, arranging never to see him again.
Thus Rendell lays the groundwork for a book about elderly family dynamics and dark secrets, not only for Woody, Michael, and the absent Anita, but also for the children who during the war hung around the tunnels in Laughton. Now in their seventies, Rosemary and Alan Norris read about the discovery of the contents of the biscuit tin that was found under a house in Warlock, “all bones this time, the skeletal hands of a man and a woman.” The couple agree to share the news with Maureen and George Batchelor and also Michael Winwood, who years later is in mourning after the death of his beloved wife, Vivien.
Woody is still living. Bitter, twisted, and full of anger and animosity, Woody is about to celebrate his one hundredth birthday. Ensconced in a luxurious old people’s retreat in Suffolk, he no longer has contact with Michael, once too often plagued by the mistakes of the past. Michael remembers his father with dread and a kind of disgust. He recalls his fear and his utter loneliness when Woody abandoned him on Victoria Station without money or food. Maureen, meanwhile, resolves to unite the diverse group retirees, envisioning a mutual benefit society of sorts, a place where they can all band together, all initially keen on the job of finding out the provenance of the “Warlock hands.” it doesn’t take long, however, for Detective Inspector Colin Quell to lose interest when forensics discover the age of the hands, settling on the notion that the killer and dissector are probably long since dead.
Rendell’s tale is not without its secrets and lies and late-hour revelations. Rosemary and Lewis and Stanley Norman remember that it was indeed Michael’s dad who turned them out of the tunnels, while exotic Daphnie reminds them of her fortunetelling skills, a recollection not lost on Alan, who gets “something like a shiver” when he stares at an old photograph her. The look is enough to make Rosemary turn on him with a look of concern. Rendell has great fun with Rosemary’s reaction to the fallout of Alan’s newly discovered romantic prowess and also the individual situations of Alan and Rosemary’s offspring, who will each confront their parents as the story unfolds.
Alan seems to have lost all sense of responsibility for his wife, now obsessed with his exotic lover Daphnie, hopping off to her in what his daughter Judith and grandchildren see as a foolish dalliance. Rosemary is determined to recapture her husband’s affections, surprisingly turning to violence to achieve revenge. It is here that Rendell’s sardonic narrative collides: Michael and Woody, his laughter a “shrill cackle”; Clara Moss, who holds a secret to do with “those hands”; Lewis’s Uncle James, who curiously disappeared during the war, never to be heard from again; Daphne, the mistress who competes for Alan’s love; and embattled Rosemary, who seeks to cast the “other woman” from Alan’s life but causes irreparable harm through her childish determination to change his behavior. Clearly, resentment dies as hard as it outlives good memories.
The dialogue, the family dynamics, and moments of delicious irony provide a comic relief that lifts Rendell’s story. It may never actually be known whether or not a man and a woman were lovers and placed so long ago, in their grace, by a vengeful husband. The leafy green suburbs of Loughton where all the drama takes place, though, is certain fertile territory for murder, jealousy, and the thwarted, aging passions of both men and women.