- - Thursday, November 26, 2015



By Ruth Rendell

Scribner, $26, 240 pages


Psychological mysteries are a Ruth Rendell specialty, and her final book is no exception. It is an exploration of an ostensibly average group of people and how they become involved in a murder over failure to pay rent. The decline and fall of Carl Martin might be considered a warning about what a really nasty tenant can do to a landlord.

Unfortunately, since the death of Ms. Rendell, mysteries no longer can rely on the sensible thinking of Inspector Wexford, her most famous detective and for many readers, her most popular creation. He was a workaday detective in a small town with a family and colleagues who became very much part of his plots and his life even after retirement. He will be missed, especially since psychological studies lean to the dark side and as she puts it, to the dark corners of the mind.

In this case, Ms. Rendell assembles a nondescript group headed by Martin, who has written a successful novel and is now trying to make a living from that precarious base. He has inherited a house in a desirable section of London from his father, which means he can rent a floor and augment his still-meager income. He pays little attention to a medicine cabinet containing a substantial amount of health remedies, including a weight-reducing drug known as DNP, which bears cautionary statements about its results on users.

Martin, whose interests are focused on his girlfriend Nicola, rents his top floor to the first applicant, Dermot McKinnon, without giving much thought to his tenant. That proves to be a mistake when a young woman worried about her weight buys 50 of the diet pills, with fatal consequences. Martin, who seems to pay little attention to what is going on in his life, is undisturbed by her death until his tenant suggests that he is responsible for it. Martin is the kind of character who takes unnecessary risks because he can’t be bothered to make the effort required to be efficient.

The tangle thickens as McKinnon refuses to pay his rent and makes vague threats about the medicine cabinet that Martin still has not cleaned out, which might have been expected in the wake of the death. There is no suggestion that this was intentional, but the plot takes dark turns involving the neighboring canal, his landlord hits and an ornamental goose. The other dark corners in Ms. Rendell’s plot are populated by a retired man who develops a passion for riding London buses, and Lizzie, a shallow young woman who moves into the dead women’s flat illegally and makes use of her glamorous wardrobe. There is a nice touch of irony when McKinnon’s dowdy girlfriend Sybil decides to move into Martin’s top floor and still refuses to pay the rent. The complications proliferate and Martin becomes obsessed by his money problems, his failure to write another book and the unending problem of the rent, which is all he has to save himself financially.

Oddly enough, the police never get involved apart from a brief formal inquiry into the drug death of the young woman, and Martin begins to think about disposing of McKinnon’s girlfriend. She leaves the house and Martin becomes convinced that all he needs is a new paying tenant for the top floor where, rather incredibly, he still has his stock of pills tucked away in his upstairs bathroom. It all comes to a sad end, and what is also sad is that Martin is not an interesting character, which is unlike Ms. Rendell’s usual style of bringing out the wicked in her plots. After Martin is accused of killing McKinnon and urged to confess the murder, he stops writing and starts drinking, still missing his girlfriend and looking back with nostalgia on the happy days before he met McKinnon. He also thinks constantly what he must do to restore the peace of mind he once had, although he now has a tenant who gives him no trouble.

How he makes his mind up will come as more of a relief than a surprise to the reader who may be tempted to think that Inspector Wexford could and would have done it all much better. Inspector Wexford was never boring when he found a body, and the sad truth is that Carl Martin is nearly always boring because he can’t make his mind up about almost anything. Ms. Rendell wrote about 60 books in her long and distinguished career and it should be a comfort to the reader that they can find them and read them again.

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

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