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'The Monster in the Box' by Ruth Rendell
At a drinks party in London last summer, Ruth Rendell seemed to let slip to a reporter from the Telegraph that "The Monster in the Box" would be the last in her long series of detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Reg Wexford.
The report seemed credible -- not only because of the new book's retrospective character, but also because Rendell, a writer of striking breadth and ambition, in recent years sometimes has seemed to regard Wexford as the sort of fictional burden Holmes became to Conan Doyle. "I don't have the joyous relationship with the chief inspector that people assume," she told an interviewer some years ago.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Monster in the Box": A review of the book "The Monster in the Box" in Wednesday's Calendar misspelled the name of novelist Colin Dexter's character Inspector Morse as Morris. —
However, the public outcry in England was so immediate and so fierce that, 24 hours later, her longtime editor had to issue a denial to the Guardian. "I was rather surprised to hear the news, and having just spoken to Ruth she said nothing of the kind," Paul Sidey told the paper. "So on it goes. I'm in my 27th year as her editor and I'd be very disappointed to lose Reggie from my life."
So, obviously, would a lot of other people, and that's easy to understand because the 22 Wexford novels, beginning with "From Doon With Death" in 1964, have remade the police procedural mysteries at which English writers have so long excelled. For readers weaned on Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey, it's all been a little like a makeover in which the chintz and blue willow china have come down and the sitting room has been repainted and refurnished in ambiguous, vaguely unsettling tones. Like her good friend P.D. James with her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, Rendell -- as several critics have pointed out -- essentially has transformed the whodunit into a whydunit.
A storied career
It's a catchy term that hardly does justice to the scope of the 79-year-old Rendell's contribution to the genre. Like James -- and Colin Dexter with his Inspector Morris -- Rendell has introduced not only a keen, though never didactic, sense of contemporary psychological insight into her plots. Motive preoccupies her. She's also been unafraid to engage contemporary social issues, particularly those growing out of questions of race and class that have bedeviled Britain in recent decades.
Her perspective on those is forthrightly socialist -- she's definitely "old" rather than "new" Labor in her outlook. (Among her many honors, she was named a life peer in 1996 and now, as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, sits as a Labor member in the House of Lords.) Again, however, there's a striking aversion to the sort of programmatic fiction that would undermine the strength of her narratives. Wexford, though he's worked in the shadow of retirement for several volumes now, is not entirely free from the attitudes and prejudices of his generation and class, but he's much more open-minded than his young, frankly Tory, subordinate Mike Burden, and the interplay between them is one of the series' wonderfully successful conceits.
Another is Rendell's aversion to graphic depictions of violence or torture, whose common occurrence in so much contemporary American crime fiction she has decried. That absence -- or better, that reticence -- in novels that deal with criminal deviance on the part of individuals pushed to society's margins lends her narratives a particular power. (It's another enduring testimony to the validity of Hemingway's dictum that, in modern fiction, anything that can be left out should be left out.)
Rendell's more than 70 books also include 13 psychological thrillers under the name Barbara Vine, works of such intensity, precise insight and careful plotting that, along with similar books by Patricia Highsmith, they've been credited with making nonsense of the usual distinctions between high and low literary entertainment.
The author's experience of those books often has seemed to inform her conception of Wexford and his very unexceptional English city of Kingsmarkham. Place is a singular force in all Rendell's books -- though particularly in the psychological thrillers -- and Kingsmarkham's unexceptionality somehow amplifies the aberrational quality of criminal incident. So, too, does the bourgeois quality of the very average life Wexford lives with wife and family.
Out of the past
All that's very much at play in "The Monster in the Box." As a young policeman years before, Wexford had investigated a number of murders involving a serial killer. He'd never been able to make a case against the man he was sure was the culprit, and that suspect had disappeared. When he suddenly reappears in town years later, the now-Chief Inspector Wexford relives the entire sequence with colleagues, none of whom are any more inclined to credit his suspicions than those who'd originally heard them. In the process of this retelling, Wexford fills in details about his early career as a policeman and relives his courtship of his wife, which occurred at the same time.
It would spoil the mystery to say much more about the plot's development, though there's also a distracting, rather unfortunate subplot involving a South Asian family and arranged marriage. It must be said that one of Rendell's shortcomings that has loomed larger in recent years is a condescending sympathy for Britons of non-European origin that tends to express itself in unfortunate physical description. Suffice to say, it's hard to see why the family in this case didn't respond to the local police attention with a well-deserved harassment complaint.
Like several of the most recent Wexford novels, "The Monster in the Box" feels in places rather slight, even perfunctory -- particularly when compared with the gripping psychological thrillers. There also are unfortunate repetitions in the narrative that more scrupulous editing might have eliminated.
Still, longtime Rendell fans probably will enjoy having a pivotal period in the redoubtable chief inspector's youth back-filled in this fashion, and Wexford remains one of those literary creations with whom spending time is pleasant, even when it's not particularly stimulating. Those coming to this masterful series for the first time doubtless will be delighted to make Wexford's acquaintance -- like millions before them -- but would be better advised to begin with one of the earlier books.