Saturday, 6 December 2014

Read in 2014 - 43: The Secret House of Death

"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.
So far, 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.


  1. I have also enjoyed the books by Ruth Rendell. The first one, Richard bought for me in 1985, I was "A Murder of Crows", not sure, I can never remember titles! Then, I went back and read all the books published before then. Her latest books I have not enjoyed reading as much, not quite sure why, it could be that I felt that she might have developed a bit of an attitude against Americans, but that might just be me!
    Oh! And she also writes as Barbara Vine, I liked those books too.

  2. HA! The book was "An Unkindness of Ravens"...I told you I can't remember titles!

    1. You were close enough, though - ravens, crows... they're all birds, aren't they :-D
      Yes, I've read some of her Barbara Vine books but I think I like her Ruth Rendell ones more. I couldn't even tell you how recent the ones were which I have read so far; I come across them in a very unsystematic manner. This one, for instance, is a second hand paper back a friend gave to me when she happened to have it on her during a visit to the pub. I don't even know whether she wants it back or I am to keep/sell/give it away!

  3. I've never read a Ruth Rendell mystery (so far as I can recall).

    1. They usually make for good reads, in my opinion.