There is no previous publishing history for any of the tales, so presumably the stories were new for this collection.
‘Blood Lines’ is about a bloody murder of ‘an ideal husband’ with its fair share of suspects. The pleasure is in Rendell’s description, and her handling of Wexford: ‘A sheet of the corrugated iron that roofed it had come loose and clanged up and down rhythmically in the increasing wind. It was a dreary place. No visitor would have difficulty in believing a man had been clubbed to death there. Wexford remembered, with distaste, the little crowd which had gathered outside this gate during the previous week… hoping for happenings.’(p4)
We can forgive the switch of viewpoint to Burden at times, perhaps because we know these characters so well, they’re in our head. It’s more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ but that’s typical of this kind of crime story. An interesting tale in 39 pages.
Much shorter and quite slight are ‘Lizzie’s Lover’ – a dark underdeveloped psychological piece, ‘Shreds and Slivers’ – insanity with a play on words, and ‘The Carer’ – a nosy-parker who got more than she bargained expected.
‘Unacceptable Levels’ – is too short, mostly dialogue, a gem of an idea for murder involving nicotine.
‘In All Honesty’ is a clever treatment showing how even honest people can be destroyed by unfounded suspicion.
‘Burning End’ lays bare the put-upon daughter-in-law who looks after her husband’s mother while he and his brother don’t lift a finger. Tragic, but believable, with an ironic twist.
‘The Man Who Was the God of Love’ concerns Henry, who pretends to be something he is not; if he is found out, then the consequences could be dire. Another similar character is George in ‘Expectations’ who married for money, not love.
‘Clothes’ is about an obsession. Alison was driven to buy clothes. The rush of adrenalin only lasted as long as the actual purchase. Afterwards, she hated herself for giving in to the temptation. [You know, a similar urge regarding the purchase of books? Are they bought to read or just to possess, to fill up shelves? The former, I’m sure.] Sadly, for Alison, she rarely wore her new clothes. Rendell really gets under the skin of poor Alison.
The novella ‘The Strawberry Tree’ is about 82 pages and is for the most part a retrospective by Petra, reliving again her childhood on Majorca forty years ago. This is a cleverly set up intrigue. It would be unfair to reveal too much. There is a brooding menace about the tale, and the descriptive passages put the reader there. And of course her characterisation is excellent; at thirteen, Petra is lacking in confidence while her brother Piers ‘had all the gifts, looks, intellect, charm, simple niceness and, added to these, the generosity of spirit that should come from being favoured by the gods but often does not’(p143). The story was filmed for TV in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries series starring Lisa Harrow and Simon Ward (1995, the year of publication!).
A mixed bag, then – but worth reading for the Wexford, ‘Clothes’ and the novella.
PS - Considering that 'The Strawberry Tree' must have been under production at the time of publication or just before, it's quite possible that the least satisfying tales were included in order to get the book out, and indeed before they'd had a decent gestation period to evolve. Pure supposition, of course.