Shake Hands for Ever (Ruth Rendell)

  • By Ruth Rendell
  • First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1975; US: Doubleday, 1975

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The brilliant Wolf to the Slaughter aside, the early Inspector Wexfords, the books by which Ruth Rendell first made her reputation, have not stood up very well to rereading them fifteen or twenty-five years later.

Shake Hands for Ever is one of the most highly regarded. It’s a howtoproveit rather than a whodunnit; Chief Inspector Wexford knows from the start that Robert Hathall and a woman murdered Angela Hathall, but he doesn’t have enough evidence for a conviction, and he can’t find the woman.

The contemporary reviews were generally ecstatic, many praising the surprise twist. I was less taken with it. This sort of story is thin; there aren’t the false trails and multiplicity of clues of the orthodox detective story. Nor, surprisingly for Rendell, is there much involvement with the characters; there’s a subplot, though, where Wexford is attracted to a sexy neighbour. In fact, the middle of the book bored me; Wexford and his cronies follow Hathall around London for months hoping he will lead them to the woman. The story treads water while they do.

The solution also underwhelmed me. I watched the George Baker adaptation in 1997, so I remembered the outlines of the plot: that Wexford is both right (ROT13: Ungunyy vf gur zheqrere) and wrong (Ungunyy qvqa’g xvyy uvf jvsr), and that gur ivpgvz vf abg Natryn Ungunyy. The solution is simply a very old dodge – it’s gur Oveyfgbar again.


Sunday Telegraph (Francis Goff, 4th May 1975): Nasty wife of equally nasty but devoted husband is found strangled. Chief Inspector Wexford, provincial though intellectual ‘tec, is pretty sure who dunit, but alibi is watertight and suspect quick to complain of persecution when questioned. Wexford, dogged in detection even though marital fidelity wavers, enlists sophisticated London nephew to help get his man. As always with this author, subtle, unusual but absolutely fair classic.

Evening Standard (Andrew Hope, 6th May 1975): Mrs. Hathall never complains. She merely nurses her grievances with loving care, and sometimes anticipates them. She is hoping, when she is taken to visit her son’s second wife, “to find her daughter-in-law in tears, the house filthy and no meal cooked”. Instead, she finds the girl dead in bed, strangled. That’s how Ruth Rendell’s new detective story starts, and it continues grippingly; it really is a detective story, with human old Chief Inspector Wexford fully up to scratch at the totally surprising end. I beg to repeat what I have written earlier: Ruth Rendell gets better and better.

The Daily Telegraph (Violet Grant, 29th May 1975): For most people, I suppose, the most important thing about a thriller is the plot, and the plot of Ruth Rendell’s Shake Hands for Ever is superb, culminating in a surprise as jolting as it’s inevitable.

When Robert Hathall’s second wife is found lying murdered on her bed the only clue Chief Inspector Wrexford [sic] can find is a finger-print with an L-shaped scar on the side of the bath The general set-up leaves him with a strong “feeling” of something wrong, and when Hathall lodges an official complaint against him and he’s taken off the case he continues his investigations in his own time, justifying his hunch with some clever deductions.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Not one of the author’s triumphs, unless it be of doggedness. In the case of a strangled wife, with Wexford instructed by his chief constable to ‘lay off’, the inspector continues to keep his suspect under observation and his pertinacity pays off at the last moment. The very surprising twist managed at the end compensates for a bit of plodding earlier.

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