Rendell’s 65th novel shows the incalculable effects of a 70-year-old crime on a group of friends—schoolchildren when it happened, alarmingly unpredictable retirees now.
One evening in 1944, John Winwood caught his wife, Anita, holding hands with another man. Taking the first opportunity to entice the lovers into his conjugal bed by pretending to take a trip, he strangled them both, then disposed of their bodies, but not before cutting off the offending hands, depositing them in a biscuit tin and burying it in a neighborhood tunnel. Two generations later, a construction project suddenly brings the biscuit tin to light, and the children who used to play in the tunnels—or the qanats, as the Winwoods’ 12-year-old next-door neighbor, Daphne Jones, called them—soon connect the ghoulish find with the time when Winwood chased them all out of the qanats. Alan Norris and his wife, Rosemary, resolve to visit their old friend George Batchelor, whose wife, Maureen, writes to DI Colin Quell. While Quell awaits the results of tests on the ancient discovery, Alan unaccountably leaves Rosemary and takes up with Daphne, causing unfathomable hurt and confusion for his wife of 50 years, his daughter and his granddaughters. Winwood’s son Michael, suddenly bereaved of Zoe Nicholson, the aunt who brought him up, feels a responsibility to reconnect with Clara Moss, his family’s old cleaner, and his unloving father, who incredibly is still alive at 99 in the Urban Grange rest home. Complications will follow, but they’re not at all the ones you’d expect.
The sedate pace and sociological focus of Rendell’s recent work (No Man’s Nightingale, 2013, etc.) are quickened here by the capacity of her golden agers to act, and act out, in ways as surprising as they are logical.