John Creevey could only guess at what the coded messages were for...were they the work of a drugs ring, a protection racket, a spy ring, or something else equally sinister?
Unbeknownst to him, John has stumbled upon some teenagers' spy-game, played out between two rival "centres" based in the city. They play amateurish espionage games, trying always to get one-up on one another, and leave coded messages detailing latest orders and objectives. Recently separated from his wife, John is lonely and slightly depressed, and becomes obsessed with these strange messages. Sometimes, he dedicates whole days to cracking the codes, and eventually these strange messages drag John and those around him down into a tangle of revenge and murder.
This is classic Rendell, which is of course to say that it is crime writing that does not get any better. The mundane details of everyday life ground the plot firmly in a hard reality, but the originality and hints of surrealism cast it into darkness and make it sparkle with something very special indeed. The characters are drawn with brilliant insight - the children playing their inconsequential power-games are brilliant generic creations, and John, obsessing over the codes and messages as they rush to fill the void in his life. Of course, the twin plotlines merge in the end as only a Rendellian plot can, in an understated cataclysm of unexpected brutality. She spins her web with care and tenderness, and then inevitably it traps its victim, horrifically.
In many ways, of course Talking to Strange Men is trademark Rendell. It contains everything we expect, but of course it is also unique in its originality. That she has written over 50 books now and has yet to repeat herself and continues to be original is a truly stunning achievement. Most authors become stale after about ten books. It is testament to Rendell's huge talent that she has not fallen foul of this - she has always refused to stick within boundaries of any kind, and the genre is far richer for her.
This book, also a clever homage to the espionage genre, is another superb achievement from the author. A twisted, strange, compelling piece of brilliance.