I'm having my own small Ruth Rendell fest at the moment -- see my recent review of The Veiled One and the thing I wrote for Shiny Extra. I got interested in Harm Done when I was writing that, as it shows Rendell in her most socially concerned mode. Of course the novel has its fair share of mysteries and murders, but there's much food for thought here too, and overall the novel is very critical of society, or society as it was when the novel was written in 1999. It would be great to say that things have changed since then, but I'm afraid if we did say that, to would probably be to say they have changed for the worse.
The chief theme that runs through the novel is that of what we now call spousal abuse. Wexford's older daughter is working as a volunteer in a safe house for abused women, something which she finds extremely upsetting, as most of her time is spent on the phone, listening to stories of unimaginable horror. By chance, though, Wexford and his team are brought into contact with a woman whose husband regularly subjects her to horrific physical punishment. At first he finds this hard to believe -- the family is wealthy, the husband is extremely pleasant and charming and appears to adore his wife. But when the facts emerge, they are truly terrifying. The reason the police get called in is that the youngest child, a three-year-old, disappears, and they have to investigate what seems at first to be an insoluble mystery.
Added to this, the local estate -- an unpleasant and deprived area -- is in an uproar after a convicted paedophile has been released into the community. Having 'paid his debt to society', he has moved in with his daughter. Old, shrunken, completely bemused by life on the outside, he sits silently all day long and never goes out. But the rebellious elements on the estate are up in arms about his presence, and some very ugly riots take place, one of which results in the death of a police officer. But, as Wexford reflects, how would we feel if a convicted paedophile moved in next door to our children or grandchildren?
It must be said that Rendell takes a very dim view of the estate and its inhabitants. Often drunk, quarrelsome, adulterous, and completely lacking in morals except of a very superficial kind, these people really show a picture of Britain at its worst. Many of them are weak and ill-informed rather than bad, but they are easily led, and the ringleaders have no problem in whipping up a mob mentality.
As for the wife-beating husband, this raises shocking issues too. Wexford's initial disbelief is more than mirrored in the parents of the abused wife, who take the view that she must be doing something to deserve it, and reprimand their grandchildren for lying when they reveal some of the things he has been doing to their mother.
So this is a painful but rewarding book to read. I did find myself ahead of Wexford several times as he seemed a bit slow to guess what was going on, but of course I had more information than he did. A dark novel, but an excellent one.