- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

It is characteristic of the surreal world created by Ruth Rendell in “The Water’s Lovely,” her latest psychodrama, that a family is haunted by murder, but not to the point of reporting it.

In the end, it’s never a question of who drowned Guy in the bathtub. It’s a question of why and whether he deserved it. Ms. Rendell’s plots often have a twist in the tail and this is no exception. A decade-old killing and its circumstances and consequences lie at the heart of this cold-eyed study of dysfunctional family relationships. This is no cosy chronicle of the trusty Inspector Wexford tracking down unlikely killers in a peaceful English village, although even there, as Ms. Rendell always reminds her readers, something sinister can lie beneath any stone.

This is Ms. Rendell at her most psychologically complicated, which perhaps is what she does best, because it allows her to explore and expose. It is with obvious relish that she pricks political correctness as well as the hypocrisy of class barriers.

Ms. Rendell, who recently wrote a novel focused on an obsession with a notorious English serial killer, in this case focuses on a family in which two sisters, Ismay and Heather, share a grisly secret. For Ismay, it is the grim memory of the day her stepfather’s naked body was found floating dead in the bathtub.

The corpse is bad enough, but what makes the scene unforgettable to her is the image of her sister Heather, impassive of face, and soaking wet as she urges the rest of the family to view the remains. Ismay protects Heather and the death is recorded as an accident, but the dark image remains, chiefly because of her fear that her sister will kill again.

From Ismay’s view, “They lived the way they lived, Beatrix (their mother) in madness, Ismay watching over Heather, because they had been convinced Heather had murdered her stepfather. Could they undo the structure of that after all those years?”

That is the core question that permeates a skillfully drawn series of subplots populated by people who are reminders of what you don’t know about your neighbors and probably don’t want to. There are those, for example, who are unimpeded by scruples in their pursuit of an improved social and financial status.

Like Marion of the “little marmoset face, her stick legs and her kitten heels” whose hunt for a support system leads her to prey on the vulnerability of Avice, a wealthy woman devoted to her pet rabbits.

Marion’s pledge to provide perpetual care for the bunnies makes her an heir in the will of her benefactor, whose demise is to be hastened by morphine. After that, as she reflects coldly to herself, the rabbits will be “off to the fur farm.” Even when her deadly plans fall apart, mostly because of the interference of her deadbeat brother, the resourceful Marion takes to blackmail to support her campaign to capture a husband. In a nice ironic turn, he proves to be the former police detective involved in the investigation of the body in the bathtub.

It is characteristic of Ms. Rendell’s style that nothing is quite what it seems. She has a capacity for threading a ribbon of macabre humor through dramatic events, as when she introduces a serial killer dubbed “the West End Werewolf” by the press. His contribution to the plot is to conveniently strangle the wealthy young woman who has captured the eye of Ismay’s lover.

Her death restores the faithless Andrew to the arms of Ismay, but has a backlash because the killing revives her anxiety that her sister Heather has reverted to the same murderous impulse that drove her to drown her stepfather.

Ismay is Heather’s caretaker, yet it is Heather who proves the more stable of the pair.

The bizarre domestic scene is exacerbated by Beatrix, the mad mother who repeatedly quotes Biblical passages about “man faced horses with women’s hair and stings in their tails.” Lonely and distressed, Ismay indulges in neurotic outbursts over her lost love. But Heather, the ostensible cause of it all, has a successful marriage with a young man blissfully unaware that defying his possessive mother in order to marry will remove him from that particular frying pan into the flame of a death haunted house.

It is Ismay who emerges as the most pathetic figure torn between her concern for her sister and her obsession with her lover, a young man as callous as he is charming. She even succumbs to blackmail in her determination to protect Heather, who is the key to the past and who, as is revealed in another lovely twist, has always been willing to talk about it.

Except nobody asked her.

The plot twists and turns into a maze of irony by the time the author disposes of her cast by ensuring some of them get what may or may not be their just desserts. You could hardly call the ending happy, and perhaps it would not be Ms. Rendell if it were, yet it is appropriate in its coldblooded way. The climax is a classic turn of the Rendell screw, as it makes a disaster in Sumatra the ultimate comeuppance in the case of the corpse in the bathtub. No, the water isn’t lovely.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

THE WATER’S LOVELY

By Ruth Rendell

Crown, $25.95, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

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