Getting better and better--and crueler and crueler--with each book, sharp Beryl Bainbridge now drags a middle-aged London quartet through a black-comedic evening of accelerating injury. The occasion: sloppy divorcÃ‰e Binny's first opportunity to play hostess for her married and extremely cautious lover Edward; he has at last agreed to bring respectable friends to dinner--tolerant Simpson and his disapproving wife Muriel. While Binny haphazardly prepares (panicking at the stores, evacuating her willful teenage children), overworked Edward frets (""a small coronary might do him the world of good""), and the Simpsons lose their way in Binny's rundown neighborhood. Small, psychic humiliations, along with a few bumped heads and banged knees. When the Simpsons at last arrive, the strained dinnertime conversation heightens injured feelings--and the tension is punctuated neatly by the maudlin, drunken appearance of Binny's miserably vivacious neighbor Alma. So far, so almost Noel-Cowardlycomic. Then, precisely at the book's halftime (Bainbridge compares life to a muddy soccer match), as Muriel is doing her ""Florence Nightingale routine"" on the retching Alma, the level of injury escalates with the invasion of escaping bank robbers, complete with baby pram full of bills. As the police close in, the crooks naturally take the dinner party as hostages, commit a weirdly gentle rape, expose pockets of strength and weakness (Edward wets himself), and repel one or two bursts of wayward heroism. Throughout, Bainbridge's undercutting edge never eases off, never allows melodrama to mar the satire, never allows any of her pawns more than a moment's flash of tender dignity. At one point, to prove to the coppers outside that all is well, the pathetic hostages pretend to be playing ping-pong--but can't find a ball and have to fake it. And on the last page, as hostages and thugs pile together in the getaway car, Edward cries to Binny, ""I'll never leave you,"" and promptly falls out as the car gathers speed. This is a fine, funny, icily depressing revel--but, oh, what a book Beryl Bainbridge could write if she ever found some people she really liked.