Rendell still shows class

2010-02-17 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Monster in the Box

Ruth Rendell

Hutchinson

THE latest Chief Inspector Wexford detection by Ruth Rendell will be greeted with affectionate enthusiasm by his old friends, many of whom may have followed his exploits from the sixties.

And as usual, there’s much to enjoy, from the smooth and original plotting to the adept characterisation and the comfortable, old-slippers atmosphere. We know and love Wexford, his family and his colleagues. It’s like coming home.

This time, though the main action takes place in the present, we’re given a view of a much younger Wexford, who, even then, had highly developed detective instincts. So it was that although no one could at the time be convicted of the murder of two women by strangling, because of lack of evidence, Wexford was certain of the killer’s identity: one Eric Targo, short, muscular, strutting, revoltingly cocky and certainly a psychopath.

A monster. And when monsters — of whatever kind — can’t be dealt with appropriately, the best thing, Wexford has learned, is to lock them firmly into an imaginary box, and chuck that box as far out to sea as possible.

Except that, returning to the present, Targo has reappeared, in Kingsmarkham itself, virtually unchanged save for the absence of the ugly naevus that had stained the skin of his neck and that he had habitually kept covered with a scarf.

The monster’s out of the box, as dangerous as ever and, Wexford is sure, connected to the new case he’s investigating. But Targo’s return revives memories, not only of Wexford’s younger policeman self, but of other events of those years, including the courtship of the woman he’d marry. The past, as the blurb suggests, “is a haunted place, with clues and passions that leave an indelible imprint” on the present.

Rendell, now nearly 80, is coasting after a lifetime’s extraordinary achievement as a crime writer: the plots are not as gripping as they used to be, the suspense not as tightly wound, the stories nowhere near as memorable. Yet the sheer class that has always distinguished her work is still there. A fine holiday read.

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