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London has been flattened by snow and recession, but Duncan is comfy and warm in his semi-detached house on Lichfield Circle. Standing at his front window, he reflects that he's never been so warm in his life.

Odd there's so much snow. Whatever happened to global warming? Odd too that his wallpaper is peeling. Wait, isn't that Dr. Constantine and his wife out taking photos of the winter wonderland?

Kindly, middle-aged Duncan is the observer character in British novelist Ruth Rendell's latest mystery, although his observations are far from acute - more as if he's guessing at shapes under the snow.

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A quietly sardonic study of life in one of London's cheaper outer suburbs, the novel deploys its characters to illustrate that, however much we think we know what's going on, we don't know the half.

This being a Rendell book, it's a deft example of sociological miniaturism, albeit less affecting than some of her earlier works. The author, now over 80, is known for tackling the issues of the day; during her remarkably prolific career (nearly 100 books), she's taken on domestic violence, poverty and homelessness.

And of course, this being a Rendell book, someone will die violently. There are several likely choices: Wally, the pedophile apartment super; Stuart, the narcissistic pretty boy who thinks an Asian girl might be nicer than high-maintenance Claudia; Claudia's nasty lawyer husband Freddy.

Then there's poor old Olwen, whose only wish is to drink herself into the ground, but is running short of booze and terrified she'll fall if she ventures into the icy streets.

The book opens with Stuart's impulsive decision to have a housewarming party in the flat he's just bought. Since he has no friends, he invites all his new neighbours: the chakra reader Rose; the three girl students; sodden Olwen and earnest Duncan; Dr. and Mrs. Constantine. (A delicious character, Dr. Constantine doesn't actually practise: He writes a largely fabricated health column for a major newspaper.)

The person Stuart really would like to invite is the pretty young Asian girl who lives in the house attached to Duncan's; but he catches sight of her only rarely - and always in the company of the taciturn man who appears to be her father.

Duncan has nicknamed the girl Tigerlily. He repeats to Stuart the story that her father has told him: The family is in the orchid business.

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The truth is quite different, of course, and Stuart's fascination with the girl he calls Tigerlily kicks the plot into high gear. Apart from her real name, Xue, we learn little about her and nothing about her fate.

Which would seem to be part of Rendell's point, though she does not preach, merely gestures: that like comfortable Duncan, most of us remain blithely naive about the global threats that increasingly affect us all, from planetary devastation to the brutal trafficking of humans.

Something is growing all right, and it's already peeling our wallpaper. And Martha Stewart will be no help at all.

Sheree-Lee Olson is an editor in The Globe and Mail's Life section, and the author of the novel Sailor Girl.

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