Book review: Rendell from “Doon” to “Nightingale”

The late Ruth Rendell was a prolific writer. The list of books written under her pen names of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine is impressive. There are over seventy books. Among these are twenty-four Inspector Wexford thrillers.

Like so many other writers, Ruth Rendell had her first manuscripts refused. Not that she was an inexperienced writer, for before her marriage she worked as a journalist. She married her boss at the paper. And as was still more or less mandatory at the time: upon marriage, she quit her job to become a fulltime housewife.

Or rather: she became a housewife and mother who wrote books. For she wrote several thrillers and non-detective novels. All these attempts to break into publishing were refused. The breakthrough came with her first Wexford detective.

This first Inspector Wexford thriller was published in 1964. The last detective novel in which he solves crimes, appeared in 2013. By then, Wexford is long retired. However, his former colleague Burden regularly involves him in cases as an independent consultant.

During an interview, Ruth Rendell mentioned Wexford resembled her. But unlike Conan Doyle with his creation Sherlock Holmes, she claims never to have tired of her Wexford. This must be the reason Wexford continues to assist Burden as a police consultant in the last few of the twenty-four thrillers. Unlike other detective writers, Ruth Rendell never let him die.

This made me wonder: could developments be detected in Rendell’s creation? After all: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot changes. Rex Stout‘s Nero Wolfe also kind of evolves.
On the other hand, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple hardly changes from one case to the next. The same holds for Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver.

Wentworth’s Miss Silver, by the way, solved crimes long before Miss Marple appeared on the scene. It is interesting that Agatha Christie mentioned names of other crime writers who influenced her. However, she never referred to or mentioned Patricia Wentworth and Miss Silver. Regardless: I decided to read the first and last Inspector Wexford novel.

“From Doon with Death”
Ruth Rendell’s first thriller with Inspector Wexford is called “From Doon with Death”. As mentioned above, it appeared in 1964. The reader is not only introduced to Wexford. Burden is already his side-kick, but still has to get used to his chief.

One of Burden’s neighbours approaches him. The man’s wife is missing. Burden does not look forward to getting involved, but there is something odd about the house and the man. Sure enough, the wife’s body is found and Wexford and Burden have their first case to solve.

After reading this interesting first Wexford detective, there were a few things which struck me. Keeping up (outward) appearances is still extremely important. But then: this story takes place during the early sixties. Yet, appearances are also important to the plot. This is still fairly simple as Wexford and Burden have to solve one murder case.

Most of the story is told from Burden’s point of view. The reader experiences his irritations, his exasperations, his interpretations. Wexford reaches conclusions just ahead of Burden. This first detective story also describes a lesbian love, which in the early sixties, must have made quite an impression. Yet Rendell and Wexford are not judgemental – on the contrary.

“No Man’s Nightingale”
The last crime novel with Wexford and Burden is “No Man’s Nightingale”. Wexford is retired and finally reading the book(s) he has been wanting to read for so long. But he is only too glad to be invited by Burden to have a look at another murder scene.

For Dora and Wexford are regularly terrorized by their efficient cleaner. Husband and wife try to be out of the house whenever they can. Even when it turns out their cleaner found the first murder victim: the local vicar.

As is so often the case in her books, Ruth Rendell took current themes and interests and wove these into the story. In this detective, a few of the contemporary themes and views range from female vicars, a changing Church of England and people’s attitude to these changes; donorship, single mothers, paternity; gold-diggers, divorce, misuse of social housing and benefits and relationships between parents and children.

Interestingly, where Ruth Rendell writes about lesbian love in her first Wexford thriller, her last has a homosexual couple. This couple might well become the in-laws of Wexford’s grandchild. The Wexford family makes no big deal about this. But this does not mean that there are no bigots and narrow-minded people in Inspector Wexford’s world.

There are certainly differences between this and the first Wexford thriller. This time, the reader mostly experiences events through Wexford’s eyes. The most striking difference is, however, the plot. Burden and Wexford have to deal with several dead bodies, different cases and more than one murderer.

So this is clearly a book written by a mature author. Ruth Rendell deftly weaves the murders and cases into her story. She does all this without loosing control of story, links, plot, characters – and keeping everything highly plausible and realistic.

Both the first and the last of the twenty-four Wexford detectives are interesting and absorbing reads. But what about Wexford and Burden? Have they greatly changed?

They have aged and readers get an insight into their past and current private lives. Moreover: their world has considerably changed. There are budget cuts, mobile phones, internet and computers, databases and software. Society and solving crimes have certainly changed since the early sixties. Yet both main characters have more or less remained the same.

Guardian Ruth Rendell: a life in writing


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