THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, by Ruth Rendell. Scribner, 272 pp., $26.
Here is how the average mystery writer would open "The Girl Next Door": In greater London, a construction worker finds and turns over to the police an old biscuit tin containing a pair of skeletal hands, each cut off from a different person. The rest of the story tracks the efforts of an ambitious police detective to solve The Mystery of the Severed Hands.
Now watch the unorthodox Ruth Rendell work with the same premise. She begins "The Girl Next Door" by taking us back to the summer of 1944, when a cuckolded man named John Winwood killed his wife and her lover; cut off their hands, which he placed in a biscuit tin and hid in a tunnel beneath an unfinished house; and burned the adulterers' bodies inside the summerhouse in his backyard. He then packed off his young son, Michael -- by himself, on a train, without anything to eat -- to be raised by a relative.
We jump forward 60 or so years to find Winwood still alive at age 99; also living are his estranged son and most of the children who used to play in that underground space where the hands were recently found. Rendell's focus, then, is not on whodunit but on the ways in which a buried crime can surface and disrupt lives decades after its commission.
Now in her mid-80s, Rendell has produced 50-odd novels, about half of them in the Inspector Wexford series. Writing as Barbara Vine, she has turned out 14 additional novels of greater length and with even less allegiance to the mystery genre. There also have been a few volumes of short stories, all of which adds up to more than 60 titles, with hardly a failure among the lot. She rivals that master of Victorian prolificacy, Anthony Trollope.
The most interesting character in "The Girl Next Door" also is the dullest -- at least at first. This is Rosemary Norris, married to Alan, a grown-up member of the old tunnel gang. Rosemary is a good wife, but utterly predictable and in thrall to an annoying hobby. She sews. Asymmetrically. It's one thing to inflict her cockeyed creations on her friends -- they can simply smile, thank her and stow the blasted things in the closet. But she also makes her own clothes, much to Alan's chagrin.
One of the long-delayed after-effects of the severed hands is that Alan reconnects and falls in love with Daphne Jones, a wealthy widow who also belonged to the tunnel gang. Ultimately, he leaves Rosemary and moves in with Daphne, and Rosemary is flabbergasted. But being wronged, it turns out, can be a surprisingly liberating experience, and much of the novel's suspense has to do with how drastic a form Rosemary's revenge will take.
Long ago, as those hands were cut off, the cold case changes the lives of those who have survived, not least among them Winwood, who is counting on celebrating his 100th birthday. Old age is a recurrent theme in the novel; one long-in-the-tooth male character keeps reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" over and over, almost as if it were keeping him alive. Not that he gives a damn about what anyone makes of this. "Age also brings something advantageous: Old people no longer feel much embarrassment," he reflects.
Ruth Rendell's fiction clusters at such a high level that the best judgment I can render about "The Girl Next Door" is this: It's a good Rendell, and that makes it very good indeed.