The New Girlfriend and Other Stories by Ruth Rendell (Pantheon: $13.95)
Ruth Rendell is the state of the art in mystery, suspense and crime writing. She can produce riveting works of detection such as “Death Notes” and “Sins of the Fathers,” which test the patience and abilities of chief inspector Reg Wexford, her cranky, satisfyingly notional small-town cop. She can deliver compelling probes such as “A Judgement in Stone,” where she reveals the identity of the murderer in the first line, and “The Killing Doll,” shot through with intrigue and wry observation, novels in which real and imagined injustices trigger avalanches of consequence. She can with some regularity write convincing and absorbing short stories such as the 11 in this splendid new collection.
The title story is a dark and masterfully understated intrigue in which Christine, uncomfortable and resigned to the physical side of her relationship with her husband, becomes involved in a surprising way with David, the husband of her good friend, Angie.
“ ‘You know what we did last time?’ he asked.
She had waited for this for weeks. ‘Yes.’
‘I wonder if you’d like to do it again.’
She longed to, but she did not want to sound too keen. ‘Why not?’ ”
In “A Dark Blue Perfume,” a much-traveled professional returns to England, ready to retire now, still obsessing about the wife who left him for another man years earlier. Unpacking the meager possessions accumulated over 40 years, he finds photos of her. “ ‘Catherine, Catherine,’ he said as he looked at the picture of her in their garden. . . . How different his life would have been if she had stayed with him! If he had been a complaisant husband and borne it all and taken it all and forgiven her.”
“The Orchard Walls” sets a teen-ager’s awakening longings against wartime separation, loneliness and overwhelming need. The narrator in all innocence betrays her young aunt to tragic consequences.
“Hare’s House” is a fly-on-the-wall look at a young married couple who buy a home, knowing a murder has recently been committed in it, and “Bribery and Corruption” is a satisfying twist on a theme essayed by Poe in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
My two favorites, “The Convolvulus Clock,” and “Fen Hall,” show the enormous reach of Rendell’s spectrum. The former is about a quirky group of elderly friends and the subterranean tunnelings of their transactions, a stolen piece from an antique shop, and tremors of conscience and existential loneliness so sharp that they evoke the works of Muriel Spark; the latter follows a group of boys on a camping trip in the English countryside, a husband and wife who argue, and a fatal accident.
“Loopy,” “Father’s Day” and “The Green Road to Quephanda” are about compulsive behavior. Each is refreshingly different. “Loopy” explores the attachment between an amateur actor and his possessive mother, who lovingly makes him a wolf costume for his role in “Little Red Riding Hood"; “Father’s Day” tracks a man who becomes convinced his wife will leave him, and a disappointed, brooding writer of fantasy novels leaves a haunting legacy for a neighbor and finds an audience at last in “The Green Road.”
There is a general rule in all Rendell fiction: Nothing is what it seems. In all 11 stories in the present work, hidden agendas abound, the innocent are quickly suborned or taken in, ironic surprises await those with guilty knowledge. Even in the least successful of the lot, “The Whistler,” a predictable ending is shot through with the tingle of suspense