I only just caught up with the news of Ruth Rendell's death on 2 May, and was sad to hear it, but glad that by chance I had read one of her 1980s Wexford novels only a week ago. She was the first contemporary crime novelist I ever read, and I never got tired of her wonderful, often disturbing novels. I thought I'd repost my review of The Veiled One from a few days ago (see below) and am planning to write something about her for Shiny New Books. Meanwhile here's a link to her obituary in the Guardian.
If you were to visit my house and see the piles of books waiting to be read and reviewed, you'd probably think the last thing I needed to do was pick up another one. But that's just what I did a couple of days ago when I happened to be lurking the the vicinity of a shelf of giveaway books. I've always admired Ruth Rendell, though I've tended to gravitate towards her Barbara Vine novels, maybe having the idea that the Wexford ones were a bit more conventional and thus less interesting. But if this one is anything to go by, I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, it is certainly a police procedural on one level, but what goes on it it is fascinating, or I found it so.
The Veiled One starts with the discovery of a body in a shopping centre car park. Wexford and his second in command Burden start to investigate, but almost at once Wexford is out of the picture, having narrowly escaped with his life after a bomb blew up his daughter's car. So the investigation falls into the hands of Burden. Now, what you need to know about these two men is that they are complete opposites in almost every way. Wexford is literary, intelligent, intuitive, liberal, where Burden is rational, conservative, unimaginative etc etc. I suppose these things are always present in all the Wexford novels, though it's a while since I read any of them, but here they really are the mainspring of what happens in the plot. Left to himself, Burden decides fairly quickly that he knows who the culprit is, and starts an increasingly intensive series of interviews in the attempt to get a confession. But for a start he has got it all completely wrong, and if that wasn't enough, the man concerned is mentally extremely wobbly, and gets pushed further and further over the edge by the process, with ultimately disastrous results.
So, a good deal of what kept me rushing back to the book every time I had a spare moment was the excitement of the plot -- if the prime suspect didn't do it (and Wexford, when he recovers enough, is certain that he didn't), then who did? I thought I'd been very clever when I found myself a step ahead of Wexford on one important clue, but that led me down a blind alley anyway, though I can't explain further, obviously. The denouement took me by surprise, anyway, which was very satisfying. But watching Burden tying himself in knots, pouring scorn on the well-meaning psychotherapist who tries to explain the delicate state of mind of the interviewee, and gradually, too late, coming to understand what transference means and finally, probably, never being able to forgive himself for the disastrous results. On one level, perhaps the contrast between Burden's crassness and Wexford's sensitivity is a bit crudely played out, but I didn't mind.
This novel was published in 1988, and it's stood the test of time extremely well. I've really got to get back to what I've started thinking of as the set books now, but I'll be on the lookout for more Wexfords -- might even actually pay for one.