Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tigerlily's Orchids by Ruth Rendell

Tigerlily’s Orchids is a psychological mystery that avoids genre clichés. In Ruth Rendell’s 2010 novel there is no “detective” protagonist; there isn’t even one central character to call a protagonist. Instead, this innovative story of murder and crime unfolds from multiple perspectives. The inhabitants of a block of flats in North London all have secret vices. It’s up to the reader to shift through the clues and red herrings.

Rendell’s characters are well developed but some were more believable than others. I had the most difficulty with Stuart, a 23-year-old loafer, who spent his free hours having coffee with a retired neighbor and taking long walks in the park. The only parts of his character that rang true to age were his womanizing, narcissism and cell phone use. The financially strapped college girls were far more believable as were the older characters of both genders. I especially liked the aging hippies, Marius and Rose, as well as Duncan, the kind-hearted retired man.

My other issue was racial stereotyping, starting with the title. “Tigerlily” (really?) is the made-up name Duncan gives to a mysterious Asian woman. The men have fantasies about her exotic “almond eyes” and submissive nature, and others dismiss her for her flat chest and “slant eyes.” Only the omniscient narrator refers to her by her Chinese name, Xue, but we never get to know her. Xue speaks little English and lives in an overheated house with three other immigrants. The rumor has it that they are growing orchids for the Queen, but their true business was obvious to me.

Rendell’s writing is understated and quietly finessed. The story unfolds at a good pace with smooth transitions despite the shifting points-of-view. The author resists the urge to editorialize or to judge her characters but instead allows the narration to stay true to the point-of-view. Hence the pedophile justifies his vice while other characters condemn it, and the alcoholic is only happy when she’s drinking. Action takes a backseat to motivation with great success.

Wikipedia credits Baroness Rendell and her friend P.D. James for upgrading the crime fiction genre from “whodunit” to “whydunit.” Rendell also writes under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. This is the first of her books that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Thank you, Ann, for the recommendation. I bought the ebook without compensation, but that gorgeous cover makes me wish I had it in hardback. A similar book to this one would be Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig, also set in North London with linked plot lines, multiple perspective, crime and immigrants.

I’m currently working on a multiple point-of-view mystery without a “detective” protagonist. Can you recommend any others?

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elizabeth said...

So glad you have discovered Ruth Rendell.
I have been reading her for ages and love the sometimes quite frightening world she conjures up.
Bedsitter land with weird scary people.
I can recommend "The Tree of Hands" as particularly chilling.
She captures the underbelly of English society rather well. I gather she is also a friend of Jeanette Winterson whose writing I admire so much.
Happy writing. II adore Dorothy Sayers but I expect you have read her already!

Rubye Jack said...

For some reason I've always ignored mysteries and now that I think about it am not sure why. I will check this out. Thanks.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I have friends who love Ruth Rendell and this sounds very interesting. Afraid I don't read enough suspense to recommend any other books like this, though I'll pop back if I think of one.

A Cuban In London said...

I didn't know that Barbara Vine and Ruth Rendell were the same person. Thank you very much for that clarification.

This was a superb review. I'm afraid that I've held a couple of Rendell's titles in my hand in the past but I've always given them a miss. After your recommendation I will probably borrow one of her novels from my local library.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth, I thought you’d like Rendell too. Thanks for the Tree of Hands and Jeanette Winterson recommendations. I do enjoy Dorothy Sayers with the Oxford connection.

Towanda, I’d love to hear what you think of this book.

Linda, thanks.

ACIL, there are so many good books to read that it can be hard to choose.

Barrie said...

I've been on a mystery jag this summer. I'll have to try one of Rendell's books.

troutbirder said...

What a neat review. I'm big one avoiding "genre cliches", which seems harder and harder to do these days. Several decades ago, I loved P.D. James ( she had been trained in medicine?)and somehow got away from her. Thanks for reminding what I've been missing.

Donna said...

Mystery is one of my favorite genres and I've been wanting to try Ruth Rendell for a long time. I recently added her book Portobello to my reading list, and I'll have to add this one too. She's been one of my sister's favorite authors for a long time. I can't think of other good mysteries/suspense stories without a detective although I know I've read many...I'll let you know if/when I think of them!

Rose said...

I'm a mystery lover, but I've never read anything by Ruth Rendell before. I know she's been on my reading list for awhile, but I'm going to have to put her at the top of the list now, especially if she's being compared to P.D. James, one of my favorites. Thanks for a great suggestion!

For all the mysteries I've read, I can't think of anything right now that doesn't have a detective as one of the main characters. I'll have to think about that a bit.

Once again, I couldn't get my act together for the monthly book review meeting--I'm going to have to get an earlier start for October!

cynthia said...

I used to read mysteries all the time. Maybe it's time to try one again.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting book club! I’d love to hear what you think of Rendell, as a mystery expert.

Troutbirder, Rose and Cynthia enjoy!

Donna, Portobello sounds especially intriguing. I used to shop/brouse at that market road in London when we lived there.

☆sapphire said...


Thanks for this great review, Sarah. Though I'm not fond of reading about stereotyped characters, this novel sounds very interesting. I've not read many mysteries so far but John Dunning's "Booked to Die" 1992 fascinated me a lot. His books sell well in Japan.

SG said...

I have always loved mysteries - adult, young adult or children's. Excellent review, I hope I'm able to lay my hands on this one. These days, I seem to be turning more into a literal bibliophile than a reader.

Carol said...

Sarah, I love a good mystery and do watch all the PBS sleuths with intrigue and always try to figure out whodunit and why. I confess to not reading mysteries much since my teenage years but you are inspiring me to reenter that world. I sometimes feel the word is more powerful than an image and I might get too frightened by reading a scary story. My imagination can work against me sometimes. A good review and I too love the cover. Thanks for the introduction! Carol