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Tigerlily's Orchids

Tigerlily's Orchids

3.7 27
by Ruth Rendell

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Is it dangerous to know too much about your neighbors?

When Stuart Font throws a housewarming party, he invites all the residents of his new building—among them, three flippant young girls, a lonely spinster, a man with a passion for classical history, and a woman



Is it dangerous to know too much about your neighbors?

When Stuart Font throws a housewarming party, he invites all the residents of his new building—among them, three flippant young girls, a lonely spinster, a man with a passion for classical history, and a woman determined to drink herself to death. He definitely does not want his girlfriend, Claudia, in attendance, as he would also have to invite her lawyer husband. But careful planning can only get a person so far. As it turns out, this party will be one everyone remembers.

Meanwhile, living in a town house opposite Stuart’s building, in reclusive isolation, is a young, beautiful Asian woman known as Tigerlily. As though from some strange urban fairy tale, she emerges infrequently to exert a terrible spell.

In Tigerlily’s Orchids, Ruth Rendell has written a darkly humorous and psychologically thrilling novel about the eccentric inhabitants of a London terrace—about the secrets they keep, and what they will do to hide them.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rendell's spare, sleek novel of psychological suspense gets off to a slow start, then picks up speed to become vintage Rendell, not the powerhouse of the 1990s but with enough plot petrol to blow most American authors out of the water. Personalities and generations clash and coexist at Lichfield House, a north London condominium, whose residents include Stuart Font, a vapid Romeo; 60-year-old Olwen Curtis, boozing away her liver; and Marius Potter, an ex-hippie growing fond of his neighbor, Rose Preston-Jones. Add a pedophile janitor, a trio of faddish college students, and a mysterious house across the street where immigrants from Hong Kong allegedly grow orchids, and you have all the elements for spontaneous social combustion. Less a mystery than a slice of life, the book offers a lone murder that comes across as an afterthought because neither the characters nor the reader can feel strongly about it. As always, Rendell (Portobello) spices the action with just the right gothic ingredients to keep things baroque but consistently believable. (June)
From the Publisher
"Disgraceful behavior has rarely been written about so gracefully.”—Boston Globe

“There is widespread agreement among both readers and reviewers that Ruth Rendell is the best crime fiction writer of our time.”—San Diego Union Tribune

“Exquisitely paced drama… Rendell once again creates an addictive read in which the characters are drawn and defined by the author's wry observations.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch

Library Journal
Known for her superb Inspector Wexford mysteries (The Monster in the Box), Rendell also pens psychologically centered suspense novels (Portobello). The plot of her latest is shaped by Lichfield House, a London apartment building, and the people who inhabit it. They are a varied cast, ranging from a narcissistic young man entangled in an unsatisfactory love affair to a misanthropic alcoholic determined to drink herself to death. While the story revolves around a housewarming party that leads to murder, the mystery takes second billing to the characters themselves. Their struggles, unexpected joys, and inevitable disappointments fill Rendell's pages in a slower pace that allows readers to feel as if they are really getting to know these fragile human beings. The penetrating prose communicates moments of tragedy and humor. VERDICT This would appeal to readers of P.D. James, Margaret Yorke, and those who enjoy psychological mysteries. [See Prepub Alert, 12/20/10.]—Amy Nolan, St. Joseph P.L., MI

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Olwen was in Wicked Wine, buying gin. She understood from Rupert, whose shop it was, that these days wicked meant “smart” or “cool,” not “evil,” just as gay in some circles was starting to signify bad or nasty. She didn’t much care, though she wondered why a shop which sold beer and spirits and Coca-Cola and orange juice advertised itself as purveying only wine. Rupert said, “That’s the way it is,” as if this explained everything.

She bought three bottles of the cheap kind. Bombay Sapphire came expensive if you consumed as much of it as she did. Gin was her favourite, though she had no objection to vodka. Purely for variety’s sake, she had tried rum, but rum was vile if you drank it neat, and she couldn’t stomach orange juice or, God forbid, black currant.

“Can you manage,” said Rupert, “or do you want me to do you a double bag?”

“Not really.”

“Your neighbour Stuart, is it?—don’t know his other name—was in here this morning stocking up on champers. ‘Having a party?’ I said, and he said it was a housewarming, though he’s been here for months and it’s not till February. He was inviting all the other folk in Lichfield House.”

Olwen nodded but said nothing. Outside it was snowing, and not the kind of snow that becomes a raindrop when it touches the ground. This snow settled and gradually built up. Olwen, in rubber boots, trudged through it along Kenilworth Parade. The council had cleared a passage in the roadway for cars—a passage that was rapidly whitening—but done nothing for pedestrians apart from scattering the ice-coated, slippery pavement with mustard-coloured sand. She passed the furniture shop, the pizza place, the post office, and Mr. Ali’s shop on the corner and turned up into Kenilworth Avenue. Most of the time the place was as dreary as only a London outer suburb can be, but the veiling of snow transformed it into a pretty Christmas card. Small conifers in the front gardens of the block poked their dark green spires through the snow blanket, and the melting icicles dripped water.

Olwen staggered up the steps with her bag of bottles. The automatic doors parted to receive her. In the hallway she encountered Rose Preston-Jones with her dog, McPhee. On the whole Olwen was indifferent to other people or else she disliked them, but Rose she distrusted, much as she distrusted Michael Constantine. If not herself a doctor, Rose, with her acupuncture and dabbling in herbalism, her detoxing and her aromatherapy, was the next best (or worst) thing. Such people were capable of interfering with her habit.

“Is it still snowing?” Rose asked.

“Not really.”

Olwen had long ago discovered that this is a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?” and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible. Rose looked at the carrier bag, or Olwen thought she did. Maybe she just looked down at the dog, looked up again, and said she must get on with McPhee’s walk.

The lift was waiting, its sliding door open. Olwen had just stepped in when Michael Constantine came running through the automatic door. He had the sort of legs which, when possessed by models, are described as so lengthy as to reach up to their neck, and he was six and a half feet tall, so his stride was long. He was the politest of the residents and asked Olwen if she was well.

“Not really.” Olwen forbore to ask him how he was and, though she knew his flat was on the second floor, pressed the button for the third. A peculiarity of the lift was that once this floor had been signalled, the intermediate could not be, so Michael had to go up to the top with her.

He remembered to be a doctor, though he had only recently become one.

“Keep warm. Look after yourself.”

Olwen shrugged, her alternative response. She got out of the lift without a word just as one of the girls came out of the flat she shared with two girls of similar age. None of them had ever been seen dressed otherwise than in jeans with a T-shirt, sweater, or flouncy dress on her top half. One was rather overweight, one thin, and one in between. As well as jeans, this one had a red quilted coat over what seemed like several jumpers. Olwen had been told their names over and over, but she had contrived to forget them. She let herself into Flat 6 and put the transparent bag down on the kitchen counter.

The flat was furnished for comfort, not for beauty. There were no books, no plants, no ornaments, no curtains, and no clocks. A deep, soft, shabby, comfortable sofa occupied one wall of the living room and faced, along with a deep, soft, and comfortable armchair with a detachable footrest, the large flat-screen television set. A window blind was seldom raised or lowered from its present position of halfway up, and beneath it could be seen the solid cupola-topped tower of Sir Robert Smirke’s church and the tops of trees at Kenilworth Green. And of course the snow, now falling in large, feathery flakes. The bedroom was even more sparsely furnished, containing only a king-size bed and, facing it, a row of hooks on the wall.

All but one of the kitchen cupboards were empty. Food, such as there was of it, lived in the fridge. The full cupboard was rather less full than it had been at the beginning of the week, but Olwen replenished her stock by putting her three new bottles on the shelf alongside a full bottle and one that was half-empty. This one she removed and poured from it about three inches of gin into a tumbler. There was no point in waiting until she was sitting down to start on it—there was no point in Olwen’s present life of ever doing anything she didn’t want to do—so she drank about half of it, refilled the glass, and took glass and bottle to the sofa. It was low down near the floor, so no need for a table. Glass and bottle joined the phone on the woodblock floor.

Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected, as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.

The list Stuart Font had made read Ms. Olwen Curtis, Flat 6; girls—don’t know names, Flat 5; Mr. and Mrs. Constantine, Flat 4; Marius something, don’t know other name, Flat 3; Ms. Rose Preston-Jones, Flat 2; me, Flat 1. This last entry he crossed out as it was unnecessary to invite himself to his own housewarming party. The flat he had moved into in October was still unfurnished but for three mirrors, a king-size bed in the bedroom, and a three-seater sofa in the living room. The place looked a bit desolate, but Stuart had noticed a furniture store in Kenilworth Parade, its prices much reduced due to the credit crunch. Remembering to take his key with him—he had twice forgotten his key and had to hunt for and eventually find the porter or caretaker or whatever he called himself—he went out into the foyer to check on names and flat numbers on residents’ pigeonholes.

The girls at Flat 5 appeared to be called Noor Lateef, Molly Flint, and Sophie Longwich, and the man on his own at Flat 3, Marius Potter. That was everyone documented. Stuart, who hadn’t yet been outdoors that day, ventured onto the front step. The snow was still falling and had settled on pavements, patches of grass, rooftops, and parked cars. Stuart noticed that if he stood on the step, the front doors remained open, letting in a bitter draught. He hurriedly went indoors and back into his own flat, where he sat down once more, added names to his list, and wondered whether he should ask the porter (Mr. Scurlock), the Chinese (Vietnamese, Cambodian?) people opposite, the elderly chap next door to them, Rupert at Wicked Wine, his best friends, Jack and Martin—and Claudia. If he invited Claudia, wouldn’t he also have to invite her husband, Freddy, incongruous though this seemed in the circumstances?

Stuart added the names to his list, went into the kitchen, and made himself a mug of hot chocolate, a drink he was particularly fond of. He was realising, not for the first time, that though he was twenty-five, he had serious gaps in his knowledge of social usage, a deficiency due to his having lived at home with his parents all his life. Even his three years of business studies had taken place at a university easily reached by tube. The company where he had worked since taking that degree, until he resigned on coming into his inheritance, was also accessible by the same means, being no more than a hundred yards from Liverpool Street Station. The only breaks from home life had been holidays and the occasional nights he had stayed away in various girlfriends’ flats.

All this had meant that inviting people round, stocking up on drink, buying food, gaining some understanding of domestic organisation, remembering to carry his keys with him, arranging with people his mother called tradesmen, and paying services bills were closed books to him. He couldn’t say he was learning fast, but he knew he had to. Since coming here he hadn’t done much but run around with Claudia. Making that hot chocolate without scalding himself was a small triumph. He was thinking how pleasant it would be if he could have his mother living here, but his mother changed, different, tailored as it were to his requirements: as admirable a housekeeper and cook and laundress as she was but silenced so that she spoke only the occasional monosyllable; able to remove herself without a word or a look when Claudia came round; deaf to his music, invisible to his friends, never, never criticising or even appearing to notice the areas of his behaviour of which she might disapprove. But if she became this person, she wouldn’t be his mother.

He was thinking of this, finishing his drink, when she phoned.

“How are you, darling? Have a nice weekend?”

Stuart said it was all right. In fact, it had been spectacularly good, since he had spent most of Saturday and part of Sunday afternoon in bed with Claudia, but he couldn’t even hint at that.

“I’ve been thinking.”

He hated it when his mother said that. It was a new departure for her, dating from since his own departure, and invariably led to something unpleasant.

“I’ve been thinking that don’t you think you ought to get a job? I mean, I know you said when you came into Auntie Helen’s money that you’d take a gap year, but a gap year’s what people take between school and university. I wonder if you didn’t know that.” She spoke as if she had made some earthshaking discovery. “Daddy is getting very anxious,” she said.

“Has he been thinking too?”

“Please don’t use that nasty sarcastic tone, Stuart. It’s your welfare we’re worried about.”

“I haven’t time to get a job. I’ve got to buy some furniture, and I only spent half what she left me on this place. I’ve got plenty of money.”

His mother laughed. The noise was more like a series of short gasps than laughter. “No one has plenty of money anymore, dear. Not with this economic downturn or whatever they call it, no one. Of course you would go ahead and buy yourself a flat the minute you came into your inheritance. Daddy always thought it a mistake. I don’t know how many times he’s said to me, ‘Why didn’t he wait a little while? With house prices falling so fast he’d soon get that place for half what he paid. It only calls for a little patience.’?”

Stuart was beginning to think that there could be no circumstances in which he would want his mother here, no matter how much washing, cooking, and cleaning she might do, for he could imagine no radical change taking place in her character. He held the phone a long way from his ear, but when she had said, “Are you there, Stuart?” three times, he brought it back again, said untruthfully that his doorbell was ringing and he had to go. She had barely rung off when his mobile on the floor on the other side of the room began to play “Nessun dorma.” Claudia. She always used his mobile. It was more intimate than the landline, she said.

“Shall I come over this afternoon?”

“Yes, please,” said Stuart.

“I thought you’d say that. You’re going to give me a key, aren’t you? I’ve told Freddy I’ll be at my Russian class. Russian’s a very difficult language and it’ll take years to learn.”

“What shall we do when you get here?” Stuart asked, knowing this would provoke a long description in exciting detail. It did. He sat down on the sofa, put his feet up, and listened, enraptured. Outside, it continued to snow, coming down in big flakes like swan’s feathers.

The Constantines lunched late, the only customers at that hour in the Sun Yu Tsen Chinese restaurant, which was between the hairdresser and Wicked Wine in the parade.

“I must get some pictures before the light goes,” Katie said, producing her camera from her bag. “We could have a little walk. We never get any exercise.”

She was enchanted by the snow and skipped along, picking up handfuls of it. Michael wondered if he could write something about it for his column, something about the crystals all being of a different pattern, or maybe he should disabuse readers’ minds of the fallacy that it could get too cold for snow to fall at all. But by the time his piece appeared the wretched stuff would no doubt have disappeared.

“Can we make a snowman, Michael? When we get back, can we make a snowman in the front garden? They won’t mind, will they?”

“Who’s to mind?”

“I’ve seen pictures of snowmen. I want one of my own.”

“It will melt, you know. It will all be gone tomorrow.”

“Then I’d better get taking my photos.”

The extent of their exercise was walking round the block, up the roundabout, down Chester Grove, along the parade, and home, Katie pausing now and then to get a shot of children throwing snowballs, a dog rolling in the snow, a child with a toboggan. Back at Lichfield House she pointed out to Michael the houses opposite, their roofs all covered with snow but for the central pair.

“Isn’t that funny? I’ll just take a picture of it and then we’ll go in, shall we? It will soon start getting dark.”

In the hallway they encountered the three girls from Flat 5, plump Molly Flint and skinny Noor Lateef shivering in see-through tops and torn jeans, Sophie Longwich comfortable in a padded jacket and woolly hat.

“I’m frozen,” Molly was saying. “I think I’ve got pneumonia.”

“No, you haven’t,” said Michael, the medical man. “You don’t get pneumonia through going out dressed like it was July. That’s an old wives’ tale.” Maybe he should write something about that too . . .

Noor had gone back to the swing doors, looking out through the glass panel. “It’s started to snow again.” She stepped back and the doors closed.

“That roof will get covered up now,” said Michael to Katie, pressing the button for the lift. While they waited, Noor and Sophie told Molly that if she put on any more weight, she would have to travel in the lift on her own. Its doors had just closed on the five of them when Claudia Livorno came through the swing doors, carrying a bottle of Verdicchio and walking gingerly because the step outside was icy and her heels were high. She rang the bell of Flat 1.

Olwen had nothing in Flat 6 to eat except bread and jam, so she ate that and, when she woke up from her long afternoon sleep, started on a newly opened bottle of gin. She never went near a doctor, but Michael Constantine said it was his opinion she had the beginnings of scurvy. He had noticed her teeth were getting loose. They shifted about, catching on her lips when she spoke. In the flat below hers, Marius Potter was sitting in an armchair that had belonged to his grandmother reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the second time. He would finish the bit about the murder of Commodus, then go downstairs to have supper with Rose Preston-Jones. This would be his third visit, the fifth time they had met, and he was looking forward to seeing her. He had already once cast the sortes for her and would do so again if she asked him.

The first day he moved in, they had recognised each other as kindred spirits, though they had nothing much in common but their vegetarianism. Marius smiled to himself (but only to himself) at her New Age occupation and lifestyle. Rose was no intellectual, yet in his estimation she had a clear and beautiful mind, was innocent, sweet, and kindly. But something about her teased and slightly troubled him. Taking Paradise Lost from his great-uncle’s bookcase, Marius once again thought how he was almost sure he recognised her from further back, a long way back, maybe three decades. It wasn’t her name, not even her face, but some indefinable quality of personality or movement or manner that brought back to him a past encounter. He called that quality her soul, and an inner conviction told him she would call it that too. He could have asked her, of course he could, but something stopped him, some feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment he couldn’t identify. What he hoped was that total recall would come to him.

Carrying the heavy volume of Milton, he went down the stairs to the ground floor. Rose, admitting him to Flat 2, seemed to be standing in his past, down misty aeons back to his youth, when all the world was young and all the leaves were green. But still he couldn’t place her.

© 2011 by Kingsmarkham Enterprises Limited

Meet the Author

Ruth Rendell (1930–2015) won three Edgar Awards, the highest accolade from Mystery Writers of America, as well as four Gold Daggers and a Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to the genre from England’s prestigious Crime Writ­ers’ Association. Her remarkable career spanned a half century, with more than sixty books published. A member of the House of Lords, she was one of the great literary figures of our time.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
February 17, 1930
Place of Birth:
London, England
Loughton County High School for Girls, Essex

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Tigerlily's Orchids 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fun to read, reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie's novels, but deeper and slightly darker. A great comment on modern society and the acquaintances that we THINK we know....
BookCore More than 1 year ago
This story follows the inhabitants of an apartment house in London. The "Tigerlily" of the title is one of the people who live across the street, and there's a surprise in their house. I was actually disappointed that the surprise wasn't something worse. There's an oddly innocent couple of leftover hippies; three college girls who are fairly typical of girls that age (hey, I was one once, I should know); a good-looking guy with a big ego and a woman problem; and a man who may be dangerous. There are a lot of similarities between this book and "Portobello" - most noticeably, the lessening of the dark edginess that used to be a given in Rendell's books. Like "Portobello", "Tigerlily's Orchids" follows several different quirky characters, makes you sympathize with all but the absolutely worst ones, and ties everything up in a neat solution at the end. Contrast this with "Lake of Darkness", where none of the characters are especially likeable, and the ending isn't happy for anyone. But Rendell is still good. She hasn't yet slid into cozy English villages with stock characters that are just too cute; there's still *some* darkness and edge. So I'm still reading.
RedMtReader More than 1 year ago
I usually like Rendell's books, but I failed to see the point of this one. While there was a murder buried deep within, the book was more of a character study than a mystery. The characters are the occupants of a condo and selected neighbors on that street. The book explores the inter-relationships of these neighbors as well as their individual hopes, dreams, and foibles. None were people I could really care about. While I respect a writer's need to branch out, I will stick with Inspector Wexford books in the future as I know they will satisfy.
Johanna197 More than 1 year ago
There is a huge disconnect between the title and the short novel which follows. The title suggests a memorable love story but in reality is a short soap opera of inhabitants of a group of apartment dwellers, none of whom has a very interesting story to tell. If you're looking for a good, gripping summer read, pass this one by as it is quick to read, fast forgotten.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
As Newsday said re this author's novel Portobello, "Rendell has long been the queen of the psychological crime.....A novel that glides along Portobello Road like the lime in a gin and tonic. It's intoxicating." So true! I'll admit my bias up front - I've long been a fan of Rendell and when she releases a new book it tops my reading list. She's never disappointed me and that certainly holds true of TIGER LILY'S ORCHIDS. As always we're treated to intriguing characters whom we follow with rapt attention, trying to out-think the author, which is impossible. There's always a twist or quick turn within the next several pages, and we're forced to rethink the possibilities. What pleasure! This time we're surrounded by outre characters who neighbor in Lichfield House, a London condominium. The time seems to be today when London has been affected by depression and snow, lots and lots of snow. Each one of Rendell's characters stands alone, worthy of our focus - together we find a juggernaut of psychological suspense. Stuart Font is a narcisstic (to put it mildly) fellow who after inheriting a bit from his late aunt is attempting to live on his own. Unable to pass a mirror without admiring himself, he is in the clutches of the grasping married Claudia who cannot seem to get enough of him. Olwen Curtis is a pathetic 60-year-old who is determinedly drinking herself to death, and braves icy sidewalks to replenish her gin. Gray haired Marius Potter is a former hippie whose interest in Rose Potter-Jones grows stronger each day. A trio of disparate college students dwell in another flat. Of course, every condo needs a super and this one's a pedophile. Across from Lichfield House is a mysterious housewhere immigrants live - they are said to be growing orchids. Add to this mix the innocuous Duncan who rather than participating in life entertains himself by observing the comings and goings of others. We're introduced to all with the opening of the book and a party thrown by Stuart. Not a terribly festive evening since Claudia's husband, Freddy, bursts in to threaten Stuart unless he leaves his wife alone. Stuart would be more than happy to do so because (a) she's demanding and expensive (b) he sees one of the immigrants from across the street - the most beautiful girl he has ever seen whom he calls Tigerlily. Rendell is one of the most skillful writers working today; she makes ordinary folks extraordinary through insightful observations and the revelation of their dark secrets. TIGERLILY is a slim, over-too-quickly gem. - Gail Cooke
bmamca36 More than 1 year ago
I purchase all books that I come across by Ruth Rendell. This book was about the lives and relationships of neighbors. Wasn't the normal suspense of this authors books but stil good.
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A large black tom bounded over to her. His white tail tip flicked once an he sat down. His amber eyes dug into hers as they made eye contact. His ears went sideways, listening to something in the distance, then focused on her again. "Hello, Im Hawkfeather. (Im on active almost all day. If your not, I can find another mate.... I dont wanna though) I will care for you and do whatever you want. I would like kits someday. I really would like to be your mate. Im 36 moons old (3 years old). Please consider!"
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Janet Adams More than 1 year ago
Once you get started you cant stop. One of my favorite authors. Fascinating characters. What a neighborhood, loved it.
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