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Rendell's subtle, smart whodunit, with wry wit

Ruth Rendell never misses.

In fact, her deadly aim and dark wit, psychological insight and subtle style seem only to sharpen with time.

Now in her ninth decade, the celebrated British author brings us still another clever crime novel, this one titled "Tigerlily's Orchids."

It is quite a little book -- not so much about the characters on its pages as of the community they make up.

Or, as one of those characters mulls in the novel, "It was strange and perhaps rather unpleasant -- the way a murder in the neighborhood, a murder of someone everyone knows if only by sight, brings everyone together."

The neighborhood here is a small one, including Lichfield House, a six-flat edifice in an outer suburb of contemporary London, as well as two dwellings across the street, one of them known as "Springmead."

"Many people lead virtuous lives not because they resist temptation but because temptation never comes their way," Rendell posits, perhaps underscoring the fact that few of the inhabitants of the Lichfield/Springmead neighborhood are strangers to temptation. As the book opens, a 60-year-old woman -- the world-weary and twice-widowed Olwen, a resident of Lichfield House -- is struggling up the steps to Wicked Wine to buy her usual supply of strong spirits, meant to keep her happy till such time that the drink brings her death.

At the same moment, a young man -- the aimless but good-looking and temporarily wealthy Stuart -- is drawing up a list of neighbors and friends he intends to invite to a house-warming party at his flat, also in Lichfield House.

"If he invited [his girlfriend] Claudia," Stuart muses, "wouldn't he also have to invite her husband, Freddy, incongruous though this seemed in the circumstances?"

It is an offhand question -- but an amusing and instantly engaging one. Rendell is a master of guile, luring us into seemingly simple situations while, ever so slowly, uncovering the secrets and contradictions beneath their facades.

Lichfield House, that microcosm of suburban London society, will also yield Michael, a newly minted physician, and his photographer wife, Katie; Rose, an older woman of holistic practices, including herbalism; Marius, a man of Rose's vintage who tutors children (and often consults Milton's "Paradise Lost"); as well as a trio of rather naive college students, Sophie, Noor and Molly. There is also Wally, the Lichfield caretaker, and his wife, Richenda, a cleaner of several of the flats.

Like Duncan, the aging widower who lives next to Springmead -- and invents names and occupations for neighbors he doesn't know -- they are all more or less types. All, that is, but the Asian residents of Springmead -- a man, two girls and a boy, one of the girls so breathtakingly beautiful that Duncan imagines her name to be Tigerlily.

The Asians, it is said, have a family mail-order business -- dealing in seeds, seedlings, flowers and vegetables as well as supplying garden centers throughout West London and, it is rumored, growing orchids for the queen and other royals. The family, if it is a family, keeps to itself, a mystery to the end.

Rendell tells the neighbors' stories so simply yet cerebrally and with such wit, that we are lulled by the domesticity of it all, never knowing exactly when a modicum of suspense becomes a full dose.

It is Rendell's way, to let treachery steal onto a scene unnoticed. In the case of "Tigerlily's Orchids," it is only as we gradually become aware of the hidden weaknesses and yearnings of its characters, that we sense how shallowly we tend to perceive others and how dangerous this can be.

But we also smile, particularly at the relentless Claudia's ringtone -- "Nessun dorma" (the Puccini aria that Pavarotti gave pop status). The aria, "None shall sleep," becomes a veritable leitmotif for the book, "ringing" at all hours of the day and night.

Rendell's wry wit is everywhere here, as she mixes and matches her characters and moves them, as in a dance, so that their individual stories intertwine: Twice, as one of them lies dead, others in the neighborhood pass by, unseeing or not understanding what they see.

There is the added charm here of British terms -- the "Nessun dorma" rings, not from a cellphone but from a "mobile." A "plaster" is a band-aid; a "kissing gate," a rural pass-through, and "Savlon," a cream akin to Neosporin.

The era is noted, too, with an older character commenting on the fact that people don't get up and go to work anymore -- they satisfy their employers, who are often themselves, via computer, from home -- and Claudia, the fashion columnist, saying she has no patience with "those writers who quoted Shakespeare or made references to Rigoletto as if anyone likely to read their articles had ever been inside the Globe Theatre or an opera house."

Olwen the alcoholic gets the best lines, answering every query she can with "not really," and telling herself that her "strange enterprise" of drinking till she dies has made her "really happy for the first time in her life, no matter what the abstemious might say."

Behind all the surface gentility Rendell also shows us is some shared complexity. When one of the neighbors is found to be a pervert, the murder is all but forgotten as the others find themselves speaking of nothing but the pervert, prompting one of them to ask: "So does that mean that we think looking at indecent pictures of children is a more heinous crime than killing someone?"

This is a quintessential Rendell question. She always goes beyond the "who" and "why."

Her new novel may involve what my late maternal grandmother would call "a nice murder" -- that is, one committed off-page, presumably by some lovely person one would never suspect -- but Rendell would never leave it there. She is too interested in murder's impact and aftermath -- probing the neighbors' psyches till she has seen each on to his or her next chapter.

Known, with P.D. James, as the queen of English crime fiction, Rendell is best known for her Inspector Wexford mysteries and also writes under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

That she continues to do so with such acuity, style and Stygian humor is a gift to readers of "nice" -- and intelligent -- whodunits everywhere.

Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.

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TIGERLILY'S ORCHIDS

By Ruth Rendell

Scribner

257 pages, $26