Ruth Rendell’s second Chief Inspector Wexford novel is set in her fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham in 1966. (Copyrighted in 1969 and first published in the U.K in 1971). It is in some ways the most unusual of her Wexford series and perhaps has more of the feel of her later Barbara Vine novels, in that it is concerned with psychology more than detection. It’s interesting to see that Ruth Rendell was experimenting fairly early in her writing career and possibly at that time considered taking the Wexford police procedurals in a different direction.
Although Wexford and his sidekick Inspector Mike Burden are interwoven in the plot, much of the narrative is seen through the eyes of a vicar. The quotations heading each chapter are taken from The Book Of Common Prayer. Sixteen years previously an elderly woman was bludgeoned to death by an employee who was subsequently hanged. The case was Wexford’s first murder inquiry when he was in charge.
The vicar, Henry Archery comes to Kingsmarkham to delve into the past in the hope of proving that Wexford made a mistake. Wexford is certain the verdict was correct but as Archery is an old friend of the Chief Constable, is tolerant of his tentative attempts to investigate. In the time-honoured fashion of ‘cold-case’ novels, probing the past leads to disturbing consequences in the present. The past is always with us was a favourite theme in Ruth Rendell’s work and it’s hard to think of any writer who handled it better.
The story expertly weaves between exploring what really happened on the day of the murder, the psychological effect on those involved and the greater understanding that ensues for Henry Archery. I thought Rendell’s writing about love – romantic and parental – was absolutely spot on. However much social mores change with the decades, human emotions haven’t yet done so and Rendell conveys them superbly.
It’s fascinating to see Wexford and Mike Burden in the early days of their relationship, before their close friendship has really begun. Burden is still calling Wexford ‘sir’ rather than Reg, when they are alone. You can’t yet imagine them having dinner together with their wives as they do in later novels. Wexford is slightly coarser in manner, wears heavy horn-rimmed glasses which I can’t recall being mentioned again and we don’t yet have the background of his wife Dora and daughters Sheila and Sylvia.
The setting, which I remember well as a child, seems as far off as another century. Rendell vividly describes a vanished Britain where people smoked Weights and kept budgerigars in cages, hotels held dinner dances and served tinned fruit salad. Rural Georgian Kingsmarkham has begun to be disfigured by ugly Sixties architecture (don’t get me started), including the new glass and concrete police station. Wexford’s office has new lemon venetian blinds and plastic seats to go with his own rosewood desk.
It is a hot July and Burden’s wife Jean is away with their children at the seaside. Ruth Rendell was not as famed for her sense of place as was her close friend P.D James but I think she should be. Her descriptions of Kingsmarkham – which is almost another character throughout the series – and the changing weather are superbly evoked.
A fine and intriguing novel.