Come back, Inspector Wexford

Douglas Johnson

  • The Killing Doll by Ruth Rendell
    Hutchinson/Arrow, 237 pp, £7.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 09 155480 2
  • The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell
    Hutchinson, 269 pp, £8.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 09 158680 1

We still have a Queen of Crime. For nearly twenty years Ruth Rendell has been hailed as the successor to Sayers, Christie, Marsh and Allingham, perpetuating the old question of why it is that there should be a particularly feminine talent for detective fiction. Her Chief Inspector, Wexford by name, has joined the ranks of legendary police heroes, and although he is Sussex-based he can occasionally, via a nephew, call upon the resources of Scotland Yard. He has become such a real character that there have been women readers who would, apparently, have liked to marry him, whilst some of their male counterparts have been eager to identify with a character whose successes are due to the patient intelligence that compensates for growing old.

As Hercule Poirot had waxed moustaches, Lord Peter Wimsey collected first editions and Nero Wolfe wore yellow pyjamas, so Wexford is the sort of man who is always badly dressed and is never certain of having a clean handkerchief. Like Appleby, he has a tendency to quote from literature, but the detective whom he most resembles is Maigret: an aging Maigret, worried about his health. We are repeatedly told what Wexford eats and drinks; we accompany him to so many restaurants that the menus in Kingsmarkham are almost as familiar to us as those of the Place Dauphine by the Quai des Orfèvres. There is a Mrs Wexford who, like Madame Maigret, is silent and submissive and to whom Wexford is attached with undemonstrative sentimentality. Just as Maigret, on meeting a widower, reflects on his own good fortune in marriage (see Maigret et l’Indicateur), so Wexford, on meeting someone whose wife has been murdered, considers his own happier position (see Shake hands with a murderer) At times one wonders whether Ruth Rendell has consciously taken Simenon as a model – for example, when Wexford encounters the pompous solicitors and bank managers of the small towns where crimes have been committed or explores specific areas of London in search of a murderer, or when the contemplates the weather with studied idleness.

Ruth Rendell has not, however, remained faithful to her successful creation. To the irritation of Wexford’s followers, she has written several ‘thrillers’ that have nothing to do with detection but are concerned with the abnormalities of human behaviour, with madness, delusions, hatreds and obsessions. If the ideal detective novel presents us with a world which has been thrown into confusion by a crime, usually a murder, the role of the detective in discovering the author of this act is to end the confusion and restore normality. There is often a final scene where the detective explains all, where the ends are tied together and where the intermezzo of the unusual is declared over. Although Ruth Rendell does not always go in for this studiously coherent ending, she is conscious of the need to keep a normal society going within the upheaval of a story which has begun with the discovery of a corpse. The architecture of her police station at Kingsmarkham ‘suggested that order and a harmony of pattern must reign above all things’ (From Doon to Death), and another way in which Wexford resembles Maigret is in his vague, intuitive, reflective stumblings towards the perception of a plan or pattern in the confusion (‘The pieces fluttered and dropped into a design as the coloured fragments do when you shake a kaleidoscope’ – Put on by cunning). A thriller, however, can have neither beginning nor ending, neither design nor pattern. Its horrors are everlasting, its evils are everywhere.

Ruth Rendell’s last two novels are thrillers. In The Killing Doll the reader is only gradually made aware of the strangeness of its characters. It begins with the 16-year-old Peter (known as Pup) making a pact with the devil and becoming an ardent practitioner of magic. We learn that his initial desire was to grow taller so as not to be the smallest boy in his form – a wish that was granted. He lives with his sister Doreen (known as Dolly), who is five years older, and by an oblique reference to a letter in a magazine, we learn that she suffers from a birth-mark, or naevus, which disfigures her left cheek. She tries to conceal this by her hair-style and on the rare occasions when she goes out, she always sits on the right-hand side of the bus. If there is no place available on the right, she will wait for the next bus. As the novel begins, the mother of these children is dying in hospital, but their father (who runs a typewriter business, as we are eventually told) cannot bring himself to visit her. He spends his time compulsively reading the lives of past royal figures. At mealtimes he neither talks nor listens, but props his book against a jam jar and reads. All this takes place in a large and shabby house in North London, surrounded by demolitions and the prospect of new building. As if this family did not by itself provide enough melancholy and oddness, we are introduced to an Irishman, Diarmit Bawne, who lives some streets away. He had come to stay with a relative, but the relative has absented himself, leaving a note in joined-up writing that Bawne cannot read. The victim of a Northern Irish bombing, he lives in a world of apprehension and is confused about his own identity.

The novel is about non-communication. Dolly hardly speaks to anyone. Pup speaks the ritual language of geomancy which no one can understand; later, when he has lost faith in magic, he invents a mumbo-jumbo with which to deceive his sister. Harold, the father, is invariably too busy reading to speak: later, when he remarries and brings the red-headed Myra into his house, he speaks in port-manteau phrases culled from BBC programmes. The isolated Bawne says as little as possible, even when he goes into a shop, since he does not believe that he really exists. Minor characters are brought in to demonstrate that they too do not communicate: the Indian neighbour whom no one speaks to, the Greek butcher who prefers silence, the medium who only speaks with the voices of spirits. People sit by their windows watching what is going on, but are themselves apart from it, cut off, isolated. The chief symbol of non-communication is the disused railway line which lies at the back of these Late Victorian houses.

It is not clear why the characters behave as they do. Dolly is ready to kill a woman whom she thinks is Myra, and it is only by chance that she is prevented from doing so. Pup, at Dolly’s prompting, ritually stabs a doll that has been made to resemble Myra and Myra dies almost immediately afterwards. Dolly becomes convinced of her own magical powers and attempts to win the friendship of a woman by trying to kill the man with whom the woman’s husband has established a homosexual relationship: but she makes a mistake – it is the husband whom she pushes under the tube at Hampstead station. In her despair, pursued by the voices of her dead mother and stepmother and haunted by a vision of the dog-god Antrobus, she wanders into the tunnel on the deserted railway line, where she is killed by the waiting Bawne.

In The Tree of Hands the successful novelist Benet lives by herself with her infant son James, having refused to marry, or to live with, his father Edward. When her mad mother, Mopsa, comes to stay with her, James is taken ill and dies in hospital. Mopsa then kidnaps Jason, another boy of the same age. We are introduced to Jason’s family, where Barry lives with the nymphomaniac Carol, the child’s mother. Barry is suspected of having murdered Jason. We are told that when Barry is with Carol sexually he loses himself in a manner that is mystical. A further sub-plot concerns Terence, who fakes the identity of a dead man in order to sell his ex-mistress’s house. The novel revolves around these confusions of identity. Mopsa is sometimes a screaming mental case, and sometimes a sensible housewife, baking cakes and answering the telephone. Benet dreams about her real son, but associates herself with the kidnapped Jason. Barry speculates about the father of Jason and about Carol’s lovers. Terence practises signing another man’s name.

In both novels there is violence, but there is no mystery, no detection, no discovery, no revelation and no explanation of behaviour. Because Ruth Rendell is a good writer, she succeeds in creating a certain amount of suspense and in bringing her plots together, but there is little drama in the fact that Bawne kills Dolly and that Benet becomes attached to Jason: these things have come to seem inevitable. The reader is not held in ignorance, no tricks are played, no dazzling displays of logic or of intuition conclude the stories. Nothing could be further from the detective novel than this form of thriller-writing, and one may wonder why Ruth Rendell has moved from the comfortable world of Kingsmarkham where Wexford always gets his man to the lonely, desperate, mist-shrouded world of the Dollys, the Bawnes, the Mopsas and the Benets.

Perhaps there is something logical in the move. Many of the detective novels already had some of the same characteristics as the thrillers. There was, for example, a similar preoccupation with identity. Was the girl who turned up unexpectedly in Put on by cunning really the daughter of the famous flautist? The man who had disappeared in A Sleeping Life was not a man at all, although he had posed as one for many years: he was the woman who had been murdered. The corpse that had been discovered in Shake hands for ever was not that of the wife, as the husband had alleged. In Wolf to the Slaughter the police, looking for a corpse, discover one that they did not expect to find. Similarly, the characters’ behaviour can be strange and inexplicable: in From Doon to Death there are two women living very ordinary lives but one feels an uncontrollable passion for the other; in Murder being once done a policeman, contemplating the setting of a crime, cannot understand how people can live in such a place. The Wexford stories, like the thrillers, placed unthinkable events within an everyday context, explored confusions that revealed an apparently ordinary person to be abnormal. Both in the thrillers and in the detective novels, Ruth Rendell is meticulous in describing the details of everyday life, the food that is bought from the supermarket, the geography of buses and tubes around North London, the plants and flowers that surround the houses. The precise emphasis on the real and ordinary makes the eruption of the fantastic all the more terrible.

Ruth Render’s switch from the classical detective story (even with those darker strains of mystery) to the thriller may illustrate some significant developments in the real world that fiction supposedly reflects. What we all wish to know is how Myra Hindley lived her life, surrounded by relatives, friends and colleagues who never suspected anything, or how Peter Sutcliffe went off to work and came home at night, without someone discerning the violence within him. The readers of detective fiction have never cared about morality, and they have rarely been moved by the characters presented to them. Like Wexford’s assistant, Burden, who once said that he had never interrogated a single person whom he had liked, they are curious rather than involved. Why not then cut out all the stuff about Wexford and his daughters and his grandchildren and his remorse when he has spoken sharply to an underling? We no longer want to see dedicated policemen or eccentric amateur sleuths defending society. We want to be presented with the violence that lurks within the mundane, we want paranoia to be made plausible, we want to see those who are nourished on hatred, lives that are so suffused with boredom, pain and futility that they become unbearable. This is what Ruth Rendell has written about in her last two novels. It will be interesting to see whether she will return to the detective novel or whether she thinks it a genre that has now become moribund.