Perhaps best known for her English police procedurals staring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, Ruth Rendell is also a master of psychological novels of suspense and mystery (some written under the name Barbara Vine), as well as of short stories. Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories demonstrates the range of her skills as a writer of short fiction. The nine stories vary in length from six pages to over eighty. The shorter stories are masterpieces of the examination of human motivation, desire, and the unanticipated consequences of decisions. In the longer stories (the opening and closing stories represent over half the book), Rendell has the opportunity to develop characters and settings.
These two longer stories are the highlights of the collection. The opening, title story, introduces the reader to Ambrose Ribbon, a very twisted, but utterly believable lonely, middle-aged mommy’s boy. Ribbon’s career has been that of a literary critic, but not in the usual sense. The final story, “High Mysterious Union,” is the longest story in this volume. Set in an isolated English village, it is fundamentally a horror story without real violence and a reexamination of the interaction between the outsider and the closed community. There are echoes of Shirley Jackson in this story.
To discuss the plots of the shorter stories would give too much away. Plot twists are an essential element of most of the stories. Yet for the most part, the twists are well within the realm of probability, let alone possibility, given the characters and the motivations developed within the stories.
Readers who have enjoyed Rendell’s earlier collections of short stories should read this one.