By Ruth Rendell
First published: UK, John Long, 1964
This is Rendell’s first – and it’s a dreary story, with a not-quite-clever -enough twist.
Rendell”s interest really lies in the human situation, rather than the detection (which is routine and unfair). The crime is as featureless and uninteresting as you can find.
A lower-middle-class housewife is strangled in the woods. Her husband is that regular Rendell type: a drab little nithing, with an abiding interest in murder. Inspector Burden laboriously questions checkout girls, newsagents, and shop assistants, and frets over bus timetables.
Inspector Wexford, Rendell’s series detective, has no name or family yet, but he does have a (mercifully dropped) catchphrase: “This is making me spew.” (Variation: “You make me puke.”)
The whole thing smells rather of linoleum.
It lacks, if you like, imagination. (Like John Dickson Carr, I don’t find a story enthralling just because it could have happened.)
P.D. James read Nicholas Blake and Ngaio Marsh. Reginald Hill clearly has Michael Innes in his bloodline, with his exuberant wit and fancy. So, too, does the gentle, philosophical H.R.F. Keating. Colin Dexter – for all that Morse is a seedy old man in a mac before he turns into John Thaw – wrote the Golden Age baroque puzzle plot in contemporary dress.
Rendell is influenced by the late ’50s / early ’60s Humdrum at its most routine. None of the characters are prepossessing; there are no deductions; Rendell has no sense of humour…
And she cheats.
You can guess whodunnit, but the “clue” is in a letter to Wexford that’s only revealed in the solution. There’s the germ of a really clever idea – but I suspect that Christie would have given it one final twist: made the Doon revelation the red herring, and Doon’s spouse the killer.
The unmasking scene, though, is strong: Inspector Wexford feels pity for – and understands – the culprit, who, like so many of Rendell’s, is obsessive and insane. It points to Rendell’s interest in seething impulses and murderous impulses under the mask of normalcy (“people like us”). The same story may have worked better as a psychological thriller.
Rendell will go on to some great things: Wolf to the Slaughter, A Judgement in Stone, The Lake of Darkness, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, the short stories. She’ll also write some ghastly ones: A Demon in My View, Talking to Strange Men.