In this, her sixty-second book, Ruth Rendell channels ethologist Jane Goodall. The population under study, however, isn't lowland gorillas, but the residents of Hexam Place, a swanky street of white-painted stucco or golden brick Georgian houses in Knightsbridge, London.
Living in these houses is a diverse group in class, character, and ethnicity. Lord and Lady Studley, their two servants, and their driver, Henry Copley, reside at the large, detached Number 11. Gay men Damian Philemon and Roland Albert, Thea, who teaches information technology classes, and 92-year-old Miss Grieves all have flats in Number 8. Rabia Siddiqui, a widowed Muslim woman who's wonderfully warm and honest, is the nanny for Preston and Lucy Still's youngest child at Number 7. Monserrat Tresser, 23-year-old daughter of one of Preston's friends, is their live-in au pair. Her Serene Highness the Princess Susan Hapsburg has lived at Number 6 with her lady's maid, June Caldwell, since the Princess left her husband, an iffy Italian prince, 60 years earlier. The Princess's cleaner was born in Antigua and also cleans several other Hexam Place homes. The Kleins, a pair of Americans, celebrate Thanksgiving at Number 14. At Number 3 is an easy-going pediatrician, Dr. Simon Jefferson, and his handsome driver Jimmy, who has a bedroom downstairs. Dr. Jefferson's gardener, Dex Flitch, also tends Ivor Neville-Smith's garden at Number 5.
Hexam Place is united, more or less, by the tradition of candles in the windows at Christmas time. The neighbors share the visits of an urban fox that slinks from house to house, but prefers the garbage of Miss Grieves. Miss Grieves can't get up the stairs fast enough to chase the fox, but she keeps a gimlet eye out for it and on her fellow citizens. The fox can be excused for its manners; after all, it is a wild animal. What about Hexam Place's human residents? How does one account for their immoral behavior and their deliciously unexpected deaths?
|photo by Jerry Bauer|
Note: It's easy to learn the characters' names and their relationships if you photocopy the street map, which shows the houses and their occupants, on the inside cover of the book.