cover image The Crocodile Bird

The Crocodile Bird

Ruth Rendell. Crown Publishing Group (NY), $20 (361pp) ISBN 978-0-517-59576-3

Like a modern-day Scheherazade, young Liza Beck tells her story over a span of nights and in the process finds salvation. After the police question her mother, Eve, about the death of Jonathan Tobias, the owner of Shrove House, 16-year-old Liza runs away with Sean, the young garden hand at the remote English manor. It is to him, over the course of 101 nights, that Liza gradually reveals her strange upbringing, living alone with Eve in the gatehouse of the Tobias estate. Rigorously schooled by her mother, isolated from all society except, on occasion, the mailman or groundskeeper and the few men, including Tobias, whom Eve admits into their world, Liza learns early that others may have something to fear from Eve, but that she does not. Credibility never flags as Edgar Award-winning Rendell ( Kissing the Gunner's Daughter ) reveals the specifics of Liza's increasing contact with the world, creating suspense in the gradually meted out details of Eve's intense attachment to Shrove House and her determination to protect Liza from civilization. Although unpredictable, the payoff seems a little weak and the careful pace somewhat slow; nevertheless, there are no holes in this psychological puzzler that has a strong afterlife. Author tour. (Oct.)