As in the superb Make Death Love Me (1979), Britain's queen of dark irony is again doing nice tricks with parallel, interlocking plots--but here, though Rendell is never less than swiftly readable, the fabrication doesn't quite soar: the characters are an unlikable crew; the balance between the two halves of the story is lopsided; and, most crucially, the reliance on contrivance or coincidence (which almost marred Make Death Love Me) pretty near shatters the narrative spell. Thirtyish, rather priggish (perhaps latently homosexual) accountant Martin Urban has secretly won a small fortune in the football pools, thanks to his old acquaintance, journalist Tim. But instead of sharing the loot with Tim, Martin decides to play benefactor to five needy souls caught in London's dreadful housing shortage. This doesn't turn out to be so easy, however. Moreover, Martin gets distracted by the arrival in his life of beautiful, semi-mysterious Francesca--a married woman (with a child) whom he is soon intently trying to woo away from her (never-seen) husband. But what Martin doesn't know is that sneaky faker Francesca is really Tim's girlfriend; they're out for nasty revenge, out to get some of the money that Martin declined to share with Tim. And just about the time that Martin starts to suspect something fishy with Francesca, he happens to select mad old Mrs. Finn (his mother's former charwoman) as one of his five lucky charity cases. So what happens when Martin starts offering money to Mrs. F.'s son--a childlike psychotic who's recently begun a career as a mystical-minded hit man? That's right: total misunderstanding--which, combined with a coincidence or two, ends up with crazy, creepy Finn zeroing in on naughty Francesca. . . A neat set of premises, a fine sense of place, a witty fugue on the themes of greed and real estate--modestly entertaining if read as a not-quite-for-real black comedy. But Rendell (whose uncharacteristic sloppiness here includes such gaucheries as "paranoidly") has made only a half-successful chiller out of her inspired plot notions this time around, a wily tale with middling credibility and minimal emotional grab.