As part of my plan to devote more time to crime fiction by female crime writers I have read Ruth Rendell's latest Wexford book, The Monster in the Box. This is the twenty second book in this series which began in 1964 with from Doon With Death.
It is possibly a bit cheeky to review this author, who was a major factor in starting my crime fiction addiction, but it is sometimes interesting to see if your old favourites still retain their magic.
The Monster in the Box is about obsessions.
The first obsession and the main plot concerns Eric Targo, a short muscular man with a noticeable naevus [birthmark] on his neck, which he constantly covers up in all weathers with a scarf. Wexford has glimpsed the naevus when as a young constable he was part of a murder enquiry. Targo, a man obsessed with animals was walking his dog, when he looked up defiantly at Wexford, who was in the victim's house and the policeman became obsessed with the idea that Targo was the murderer, despite an absence of any evidence.
Targo moves on with his life, moving through several marriages, gradually becoming more wealthy, and at one point returning to Kingsmarkham, when Wexford is sure he committed another murder.
In the present day [sometime in the 1990s in the book] Wexford spots a much older Targo, who has now had the naevus removed, and he is certain that yet another murder will occur. The only person he can confide in is Mike Burden, who does not believe in Wexford's obsession.
The second obsession is Reg Wexford's desire for a certain type of woman. This is dealt with as Wexford reminisces about his past, and Rendell plays a little game with her readership. Luckily Wexford eventually finds his Dora and settles down to a happy married life.
The third strand of the plot becomes an obsession, when concerns felt by Jenny Burden, are subsequently passed on to Detective Sergeant Hannah Goldsmith.
Jenny, Mike Burden's second wife and a dedicated history teacher, is concerned that bright local teenager Tamima Khan is being prevented from attending a sixth form college.
When Hannah takes up this it becomes an obsession, a teenager possibly wanting to go out to work for a while, turns in her politically correct view into a possible arranged marriage, from there it develops into a forced marriage, and finally an honour killing instigated by Tamima's family.
I must admit I was mildly irritated by a series of anomalies in the plot, which impair Rendell's attempt to create the image of a Kingsmarkham in 1990s Britain unused to Asian immigrants.
In fact some of the dialogue just does not ring true, and Hannah's statements with reference to the Rahman's house are so patronising that they seem more appropriate to a colonial memsahib in Simla than a liberal anti-racist woman police officer in 1990s Britain.
Also some of the ideas expressed make it seem the book was set in the 1950s rather than the 1990s, or else that Reg Wexford, and his team, just don't get out that much.
......to follow Wexford into the general store. Another surprise awaited him. Out here, in this rustic and intensely English spot, the proprietor and postmaster was Asian. And a particularly dark-skinned hook-nosed Asian at that. Wexford wondered if it was politically incorrect even to think these things.
In my experience by the 1980s a very large number of small shops in England were run by Asians. Surely by the 1990s even in a rural village it would not have been a surprise to come across an Asian shopkeeper.
I was enjoying The Monster in the Box till about two thirds through the book, and looking forward to Wexford finally chasing Targo down. But the ending unfortunately became rather obvious far too soon as both plot lines converged leaving Wexford, and this reader ultimately unsatisfied.
Ruth Rendell is a wonderful storyteller, but spoils this book with exaggerated attempts to get over her agenda unnecessarily putting ideas into the characters minds that might be considered even to denigrate the indigenous population.
'There was a solidarity in this family he had seldom seen before the immigrants came.'