Years after she caused her teenaged lover’s accidental death, claustrophobic Clodagh Brown is once again mixed up in deeds that are bound to end fatally—but none too soon—in this intricate, rather febrile exercise in the delayed payoff.
Many of Ruth Rendell’s previous nine novels under the Vine byline (The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, 1998, etc.) have focused on dysfunctional surrogate families, and once again Clodagh, scarred by the climbing accident that killed her friend Daniel Fleetwood but even more terrified of enclosed spaces than of dizzying heights, is only part of the ill-assorted menagerie who’ve found haven at 15 Russia Road in the quiet district of Maida Vale. The others, united only by their shared love of climbing London’s roofs, are Wim, a gifted amateur acrobat; Liv, an agoraphobic runaway who feels free only when she’s well away from street level; Jonny, a sociopath attracted by the idea of entering those invitingly open windows below; and Silver, whose pleasure it is to take all the others into his home. The mixture is obviously explosive, and the first half of the story—especially the counterbalancing family portrait of Clodagh’s lordly cousin and his sitcom star wife, who evidently take in their poor relation expressly in order to sneer at her—is as ominously accomplished as anything in Vine. But Clodagh and Silver’s fascination with a pair of foster parents on the lam from authorities who insist that the boy they’ve taken in be adopted by a mixed-race household is distracting, unconvincing, and worked out with a lack of conviction rare for a master of long-deferred doom; and the elaborate fictional edifice ends up crumbling rather than building to a peak.
Even though Vine’s characters invariably find waiting such a losing game, her loyal readership may want to wait till next year just this once.