Tigerlily’s Orchids – A Ruth Rendell Mystery

Do you ever wonder what your neighbors think of you?

With great attention to how people make assumptions about each other, Ruth Rendell prepares the scene of the crime with an assortment of eccentric characters who live in a London apartment building in Tigerlily’s Orchids.

As tenants of Lichfield House are introduced, some of their attributes are stereotypical, but Rendell manages to insert her wry observations about each one. Within the six flats, neighbors include:

  • twenty-five year old Stuart Font, who cannot pass a mirror without admiring his reflection;
  • Olwen Curtis, a retired-from-life alcoholic who does all her shopping at the Wicked Wine;
  • three college students – Noor (Arabian princess), Molly (overweight), and Sophie (needing money);
  • Rose Preston-Jones, middle-aged former hippie who once slept with Marius Potter in Flat #3, but only Marius remembers;
  • and the Constantines – he seems to be an expert in everything but actually knows little.

Added to the mix is Wally Scurlock (great last name for a villain), the building caretaker, and his wife, the housekeeper. Wally spends his free time avoiding his wife and looking for porn on the internet – when he is not stalking young girls in schoolyards.

Although pressed by his mother to go back to work before his inheritance from his aunt runs out, Stuart spends frivolously, and decides to throw a housewarming party inviting all his neighbors. He includes Claudia, his mistress, despite her husband Freddie’s warning to stop the affair, and Duncan, the elderly man who lives across the street…

“Duncan watched them from his front windows, imagining lives and dramas for them that bore no relation to reality.”

The party finally starts the action in the story when Freddie, the cuckolded husband, crashes the gathering – effectively driving everyone out as he bashes Stuart with a stick and threatens to kill him. Wisely deciding to detach himself from Claudia, Stuart discovers the beautiful Asian girl (Tigerlily) who lives across the street, and is determined to get to know her.

Stuart’s interaction with the mysterious Tigerlily begins another diversion in the plot that adds more opportunities for Rendell’s astute observations of human frailty.

“Getting married to Tigerlily wouldn’t help her get a passport…Much as he told himself he adored Tigerlily, he couldn’t help feeling relief that he wouldn’t have to marry her. All he need do was take her to a hotel…She was the loveliest girl he had ever seen, and soon she would be his. But, luckily, not his wife.”

The story is easier to follow if you keep in mind that each of the characters revolves in his or her own world, making assumptions about their neighbors, but not really knowing what is going on in their lives – similar to most neighborhoods. As the reader, you have the privilege of being the voyeur as Rendell throws them into contact with one another now and then, and drives the crazy circuitous plot to murder.

The asides about human nature are almost more entertaining than the mystery plot, but Rendell does produce a murder and a few red herrings leading away from the murderer. Eventually she delivers – using a soft blue leather briefcase with the same impact as “Rosebud” to reveal the culprit.

Baroness Ruth Rendell has a reputation for dry humor. If you are looking for a plot-driven suspense thriller, this book is not for you. But if you appreciate the nuance and the study of portraits behind the facade, Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids will provide some humor, a surprising solution to a mystery, and a sharp evaluation of humanity.