By Ruth Rendell
First published: UK, Hutchinson, 2011
The “vault” is what Wexford (now retired) calls the cellar of Orcadia Cottage, where four skeletons are found.
At the end of A Sight for Sore Eyes, there were three bodies down there. We know whose they were. What, then, is the fourth corpse doing down there?
Wexford, armed with a pensioner card, solves the case for the London police. He also sends his first e-mail. (Really? E-mail was around in the ’90s!)
Sequels in detective fiction are tricky things. There’re Mitchell’s Lament for Leto, the Coles’ Pendexter Saga, Freeman’s When Rogues Fall Out, and Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book. Actually GOOD ones include… (Pauses; scratches head.) Send in your answers, dear reader!
A Sight for Sore Eyes was a fine, self-contained psychological suspense novel. I’m not sure a sequel was necessary.
For a start, it doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge of the previous book; Francine (now a doctor, happily married with a child) and Teddy’s grandmother only make cameo appearances, and there’s no mention of, say, Francine’s mother or stepmother.
The mystery here is fairly drab. The plot involves sexual trafficking and prostitution; and we’re expected to believe that nearly everybody who surveyed or laboured on the house is a crim.
It’s also a procedural, rather than a fair play detective story. We already know most of what happened, so watching the police try to identify bodies and reconstruct the crime isn’t terribly exciting.
There’s little of the psychological interest of earlier, better Wexfords (the obsessive, erotic relationships of Wolf to the Slaughter and A Guilty Thing Surprised, the queasy mother-son pair in The Veiled One), while Simisola – the first of her political Wexfords – interwove social message and mystery more effectively.
Rendell’s lack of interest in both Wexford and the mystery story is obvious – but, as she said, she didn’t do puzzles anymore.
Kirkus (1 July 2011):
Ex–Chief Inspector Wexford returns from retirement to solve a most unlikely case: the mystery of who killed the three people whose corpses were last seen at the bottom of a coal hole in A Sight for Sore Eyes (1999).
In the decade since Franklin Merton left St. John’s Wood in 1998, Orcadia Cottage has changed hands twice by the time Martin Rokeby, who wants to make room for an amphora his wife Anne found in Florence, pulls up a manhole cover in his backyard and shines a light down a dark shaft to reveal not only the three victims from Rendell’s earlier tale but a fourth, much more recently dead than the others but equally beyond identification. Det. Supt. Thomas Ede, of Cricklewood, is getting nowhere with the case, so he invites Reg Wexford, who’s retired to Hampstead Heath, to join him as an unpaid consultant. “I’m an amateur detective now,” thinks Wexford, though one accorded much less respect than Poirot or Lord Peter. Accompanying Ede and his sergeant, Lucy Blanch, on interviews, he ventures several guesses as to the identities of the dead—Merton’s vanished second wife, Harriet? The young man seen driving an Edsel and heard calling himself Keith Hill? His uncle, from whom he may have taken his name and much more? Orcadia neighbor Mildred Jones’s cleaner Vladlena, who memorably burned the shirt of her then-husband Colin?—and then watches as he’s proved right or wrong. Nor does he simply watch, for trauma and tragedy are about to visit Wexford’s own family in equally unnerving ways.
Though this sequel doesn’t pack the punch of the earlier novel, which never seemed in need of a sequel, it’s an undoubted tour de force likely to offer enjoyment both to readers with long memories and to those approaching it as a stand-alone.