Nine new short stories from the prolific, impressive Rendell--but an underpar batch this time, with no top-notch entries and quite a few clinkers. Many of the pieces here begin seductively, with an arresting Rendell character-sketch or psychological situation, only to peter out disappointingly. "Paperwork" has a fine gothic setup--girl raised by cold grandparents in a great manse--that goes nowhere. The title story, about a writer's snobbish attitude toward a cleaning-woman, shifts awkwardly from subtle insight to unconvincing melodrama. Two items--the Maugham-manque. "Dying Happy," the Roald Dahl-ish "The Fish-Sitter"--are barely more than anecdotes. Only two stories offer solid, if obvious, suspense: the creepy "Mother's Help," about a straying husband's homicidal use of his precocious children; and "An Unwanted Woman," in which Wexford and Burden (Rendell's regular sleuths) investigate the suicide of a lonely widow who had recently befriended a teenage runaway. Lesser work from a major talent; readable but unpersuasive.