Rendell returns with an unflattering expose of a group of tenants residing in a block of flats called Lichfield House in Kenilworth Avenue, North London. Apart from a love affair between two sensitive middle-aged hippies, most of the characters in this novel gravitate between narcissism and self-absorption as the snow falls and London has one of its coldest winters in years.
Stuart Font prepares for his housewarming party, but he’s having second thoughts about inviting
his girlfriend Claudia and Claudia’s husband, Freddy, as he and Claudia are having a tempestuous affair
- the relationship rather incongruous under the current circumstances. Obsessive-compulsive to the last, Stuart incessantly makes mugs of hot chocolate and worries about how he’s going to keep the flat he bought the minute he came into an inheritance.
As Stuart’s money gushes away in the face of his ideal lifestyle, he becomes obsessed with an Asian girl, dreamily naming her Tigerlily
for her lithe and slender shape, swan’s neck and incomparable face. While Stuart is distracted by this new force in his life,
his neighbor Olwen is at last doing what she has always wanted to do. For reasons she has previously stringently controlled, Olwen has finally decided to drink the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for.
Michael Constantine (who has studied medicine) is sure that Olwen has the beginnings of scurvy,
but in the Lichfield House “gossip ratings,” Olwen’s drinking takes second place to the repeated thrashing and dissecting of the assault on Stuart by an out-of-control Freddie, who discovers Claudia's affair after electronically spying on her.
Duncan Yeardon, who lives just across the street, speculates about the lives of these strangers. A people-watcher with an active imagination, he sees Olwen emerging from Wicked Wine shop with her days’ supplies in two carrier bags. Internalizing her pain and her long-held need to drink, Olwen has turned to the self-destruction of alcohol and is now trapped in a prison of her own making.
Freezing fog closes in on Kenilworth Avenue, and other characters circle Lichfield House as Duncan stands inside his front window deriving entertainment from the people who pass. Olwen’s cunning and unscrupulousness lead her to enlist the services of caretaker Wally Scurlock, who gets bottles of gin and vodka from Tesco’s for her
(even as he tries to hide his attraction to child porn from his vituperative wife).
Although Rendell didn’t really hold me until the end, her writing is always relevant. Place is tied to character while rumors of murder and pedophilia abound. From this web of scrambled lives, naivety clashes with opportunism, people’s dramas play out as the author gradually unveils her gritty portrait of a neighborhood in transition.