"The Secret House of Death" is, as you can tell both from the author's name and the title, crime fiction. It is nowhere near as gruesome as it may sound. Instead, it is a quiet book (thank you, Nan, for using that term - I hope it is alright that I have nicked it from your blog), if that can be said about crime fiction at all.
This novel was first published in 1968, the year I was born, and four years after Ruth Rendell's first novel. While it is clearly set in the time it was written, it is still a story that could take place more or less like that in our time.
The setting is a quiet London suburb, a place where during the day, only the housewives and small children are home, while the men are out to work and the older children are at school. It is a neighbourhood with identical looking houses, some of which are alreay outfitted with central heating, while others are still a bit behind in terms of mod cons. The housewives know each other, they take turns in picking up each other's children from school, meet for a cup of tea at each other's houses, have the same cleaner (a particularly unpleasant woman, who has good words only for her own husband) and go to the same shops.
Susan is regarded with a mixture of curiosity and compassion by most of her neigbhours - she is the only divorcee and single mother around. Her husband left her and remarried, and in order to have something to do, get a bit of money in and be able to look after her little boy at the same time, she types authors' manuscripts in her sitting room.
Of the family next door, the wife is the closest she has to a friend; Doris is always cold, always up for some gossip but always helpful, and her son is the same age as Susan's and his best friend. The Winters have a dog, and that dog plays an important role in the book: he goes bonkers when a stranger approaches any of the houses nearby, but doesn't make a sound when it is someone he knows to live there.
On the other side of Susan's house live a couple without children. They mostly keep to themselves, and the windows of their house are always firmly shut.
The car of a stranger has been seen several times parked in front of the house of that couple, always when the very good looking husband was away. Soon, rumours are high about the wife having an affair. Susan is not at all interested in the goings-on next door, and when one day the wife, Louise, pays her a tearful surprise visit, urging her to come to her place the next morning because she desperately needs to talk to someone, Susan feels very uncomfortable.
Still, she promises to come. When she does so the next day, to her horror she finds Louise and her alleged lover dead on the marital bed.
The inquest soon closes with the verdict "murder and suicide" (by the alleged lover), and Susan feels very sorry for Bob, Louise's husband. He starts calling on her, obviously finding comfort in his gentle neighbour.
But is all as it seems? Will Susan and Bob be able to comfort each other? And what role do the three construction workers from the road work site at the end of the road play?
I'm afraid it did not take me awfully long to guess the "whodunnit", but just like the detective (who, sadly, remains a pale figure), I wanted to know how the crime had been done.
there wasn't a book by Ruth Rendell I did not enjoy reading. This one
was over too soon - I grew to care about some of the characters, and would have liked
to learn more about them.