Long before it became chic for literary writers to dabble in genre fiction, Ruth Rendell was publishing superb novels that blurred the lines between art and entertainment. Since 1964, her witty, pitch-dark thrillers and Chief Inspector Wexford whodunits have married lurid crime plots to biting, complex portraits of contemporary British society. While the long-running Wexford series is starting to show its age (after 43 years on the job, hardworking Reg is overdue for retirement), her more ambitious stand-alone novels are only getting better. The Water’s Lovely is one of Rendell’s most virtuosic, shifting seamlessly from tart Barbara Pym-style social comedy to black comedy, to gothic horror, to romance, then back again.
Ismay Sealand, a pretty young Londoner, has a caddish boyfriend, a schizophrenic mother, and a decidedly less pretty kid sister, Heather, with whom she shares both a flat and a horrible secret. Twelve years ago, their stepfather, Guy, drowned in the bathtub while he was alone at home with 13-year-old Heather — whom Ismay discovered in a soaking wet dress. The police never thoroughly investigated, but Ismay has long suspected that Heather killed Guy to protect her from his sexual advances, as Heather had recently seen Guy kissing Ismay. The sisters have never discussed the subject.
Casting her net wide, Rendell proceeds to draw in about a dozen fully rounded characters whose lives overlap — sometimes only glancingly and coincidentally — with the sisters’. Among them is Edmund Litton, a male nurse who begins wooing Heather to spite his controlling mother, Irene, an imperious hypochondriac who has been hoping to set him up with her friend Marion. A grifter who ingratiates herself to anyone with money, Marion is one of the most detestable and irresistible creatures in Rendell’s oeuvre. Birdlike, exuberant, and blissfully amoral, Marion lies, flatters, blackmails, lifts her acquaintances’ silverware, and hoards a fatal dose of morphine for an opportunity to do in an elderly benefactor.
Rendell has a lot of fun with Marion, and so do we. But as in all her work, this novel is grounded in spot-on, grave observations of human nature. Rendell writes marvelously here about what draws people together and drives them apart; the way beauty can make young women stupid, blinding them to all but their own fleeting power to attract; the humiliations of middle age; the perils of romantic obsession; and the inner workings of a healthy marriage. And while she never explicitly judges her characters, Rendell has crafted for each a cruelly perfect fate, one that reflects, sometimes humorously and sometimes tragically, the kinds of lives they have lived. A-