Although Rendell’s six previous collections have showcased a remarkable talent for evoking suspense in just a few pregnant pages, the nine tales here are successful in direct proportion to their length. Even the best of the seven truly short takes, “The Astronomical Scarf,” shines mainly for its efficiency in capturing the ill-fated people who buy or borrow or steal the scarf from each other. For the rest: “The Wink” and “Walter’s Leg” reduce the heroes’ entire lives to anecdotes; “Fair Exchange,” “The Professional,” and “The Beach Butler” are thwarted anecdotes whose ironic anticlimaxes forestall the expected endings; and “Catamount” is simply a dark postcard from Montana. The two long stories are far more substantial, though less conclusive. In the title piece, a hypercritical gadfly whose memorably creepy days are taken up with reading current novels and writing nasty letters to the authors about their factual and stylistic errors is brought to terms with the mother he has been mourning in a climax that doesn’t measure up to his oblivious cruelty. And “High Mysterious Union,” in which a translator borrowing a cottage at the edge of the woods in an isolated English village finds every villager who comes by insinuatingly eager to wash his windows or share his bed, might be a miniature Barbara Vine novel, though again one that better evokes than resolves its sense of veiled menace.
Best savored not for their own achievement, but as revelations of Rendell’s gift for rooting her novel-length nightmares (Harm Done, 1999, etc.) in fairy-tale fears and desires her most adult characters and readers have never outgrown.