Interestingly, as Ruth Rendell has grown older (she is now 84), her novels tend to feature an older cast of characters. Her latest, The Girl Next Door, for example, focuses on a group of childhood friends, all of them now in their seventies, who are brought back together by the investigation of a crime that happened in their old neighborhood in 1944.
After, as children, they discovered a carefully constructed earthen tunnel in an open field near their homes, there was no keeping them out of it. Finally, they had a place to call their own where they could create a little world far away from the prying eyes of parents and neighborhood do-gooders. But now, some six decades later, a gruesome discovery is made near their secret tunnel. A little tin box containing the remains of two human hands (one male, one female) has been found – and police want to know what the old friends might remember about those long ago days.
It is not like any of the old group has gone out of their way to keep up with the others. Whole lives have been lived with varying degrees of success and failure; some are happily married now, with adult children; others have been married more than once and have no children; some stayed in the old neighborhood, and others have not been back for years. Life has moved on and, now if they think of their old friends at all, most still picture them as the children they were in 1944. But that is about to change.
The wild card in the deck has always been Daphne. Two or three years older than most of the other children in their group, she is the one all the boys were in love with and all the girls wanted to be. Even now, as the group prepares to meet together with a police detective, most of the men are eagerly anticipating a reunion with Daphne – and most of the women will find themselves resenting her when she arrives. Let the fireworks begin.
The Girl Next Door is a mystery about a crime that even the police don’t seem to care much about. After all, the victims, even if identified, have been dead since before the end of World War II, and their murderer, if still alive, is likely to be almost 100 years old. But don’t let that fool you because Rendell has a lot more than that up her sleeve. Not the least is her reminder that the emotions of childhood relationships, feuds, and passions are every bit as strong in the minds of the elderly as they were when fresh. And as it turns out, according to Rendell, they are also every bit as strong in the flesh. Several childhood friends, because of a pair of severed hands, will live out their remaining years much differently than they had anticipated just a few weeks earlier.
Pure Ruth Rendell, this one is a beauty.