In a college town two schoolgirls live with their widowed father Luke, a gentle well-educated man, meticulous and orderly. Elvira and Spinny are watchful however for Luke plans to remarry and has chosen Mary. The threat to the girls world is removed, however, when Mary falls to her death.
Although Rendell may well be the greatest living writer of suspense short-stories (Means of Evil, The Fever Tree, and two other collections), this 80-page tale - an inaugural entry in the "Harper Short Novel Series" (see Weldon, below) - is an off-kilter, uncharacteristically clumsy effort, with the author's notable talent for creepy psychopathology forced into an obvious, gimmicky framework. The narrator is young Elvira Zoffany, who primly recalls the sudden death of her mother (when Elvira was 14) and the strange, gloriously insulated world she lived in for two years thereafter, with father Luke and sister Spinny (Despina) in their 15th-century house in a university town. Elvira - turning back puberty with anorexic self-starvation, utterly obsessed With her handsome scholar-father - shuts out the fleshly world, wallows in books and history, and plays substitute-mother to her chubby, earthier, seemingly more normal younger sister (who sees ghosts). Unsurprisingly, then, when father Luke produces a comely, bookish fiancee, 16-year-old Elvira is devastated: "It was as if my soul had become one of those limestone figures on the west front of our cathedral and some restorer, incompetent at his craft, was chipping away at it with a sharp tool. . ." So Elvira makes homicidal plans (reminiscent of Rendell's The Killing Doll). But when the fiancee dies in a fall, Elvira isn't sure what happened. ("Did I touch her, push her, or was it the frayed rope alone that led to her death?") And only after more tragedy - Elvira's near-death from anorexia, Luke's bloody suicide - will a transformed Elvira (suddenly sane, beginning a normal life at last) see her family psychopathology in full. . .but perhaps too late to save herself. The crucial final twist here (which might be dazzling in a 25-page story) becomes transparent much too soon. The layers of clinical craziness seem overdone - as does Elvira's loonily self-satisfied, elegant narration. So, though Rendell's gift for lean, atmospheric storytelling is never in doubt through this intense miniature, it has neither the riveting conviction of her stories nor the rich, ironic patterning of her best psycho-suspense novels. (Kirkus Reviews)