King Solomon’s Carpet is nothing if not ambitious. It’s another of Barbara Vine’s attempts to stretch the limits of crime fiction, to luxuriate in psychology rather than be bound by the demands of suspense. This time Vine throws together nearly a dozen urban misfits — all lodgers in the same dilapidated former schoolhouse in West Hampstead, all with some link to the London Underground (the ”carpet” of the title). Tom, a lonely and unstable young flute player, performs for coins in the subway’s corridors. So does beautiful violinist Alice. Jarvis, their sexless landlord, maniacally scribbles away at a history of the Underground, chunks of which pop up throughout the novel. And the most recently arrived tenant is Axel Jonas, a charismatic nut with secret plans for grand-scale vengeance.

Many of the pathetic case histories on display here have a certain dreadful fascination, as do creepy glimpses of the Underground subculture. But the relentless piling up of damaged souls soon becomes claustrophobic, grotesque rather than chilling. Lingering over every clinical wrinkle, Vine fails to generate much tension or momentum. Worst of all, when the characters’ fates do finally lock together in a pitiful love triangle and a thwarted act of terrorism (explicitly modeled on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent), the effects are rushed and awkwardly melodramatic. B-