Thursday, June 07, 2007


I used to read all the Wexford series written by Ruth Rendell.

Her first "From Doon Till Death" was published in 1964 so I must have begun reading the paperbacks some time between 1968 and 1972. When the series reached the television in 1987, and George Baker did not fit in to my image of Reg Wexford, I think I lost interest in the books. I was being very unfair but such is the power of television to influence our enjoyment of an author.

Perhaps it was a kind of snobbery in that I had read Rendell before she became so popular, and was peeved that my fixed image of the detective had been spoilt to please the masses.

I returned recently to read End in Tears, the latest Wexford, and found it as enjoyable a read as the earlier books. Detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford and Detective Inspector Mike Burden are once again investigating a murder and once again Rendell produces some of her trademark twists and turns in a classic police procedural.

Amber Marshalson, a teenage single mother from a wealthy family is found murdered by her doting father George. There is £1,000 in cash on her body and they work out that there was a previous unsuccessful attempt on her life a few weeks earlier. Wexford and Burden have on their investigative team some interesting characters, who epitomise the cultural and social problems in society in the England of 2007. It used to be only the criminals who had all the personal problems but in this novel misery is shared with Wexford's family and his detectives.

There is the problem of the burgeoning relationship between Detective Sergeant Hannah Goldsmith, a modern liberal feminist, and the more staid DC Balbir Bhattacharya.

"They made a beautiful couple, he thought....the woman so slender, her hair streaming down her back like a dark waterfall, and the tall very upright man....They might have been brother and sister, offspring perhaps of a father from Iran and a mother from Iberia."

Wexford has more personal problems as his daughter Sylvia is bearing a surrogate baby for her estranged husband Neil and his girlfriend Naomi. Dora Wexford finds it impossible to cope with this situation, while Reg tries to see his daughter's side in this conundrum.

The discovery of another young girl's body, who not only knew Amber but travelled with her to Frankfurt, has the detectives struggling to find the motive for these murders. One can imagine in the Kingsmarkham police station a large white board with the photographs of the victims, their friends, their acquaintances and relatives with a multitude of lines drawn representing all their connections. In this case one gets the impression that perhaps Wexford and Burden are not collating all the information as well as they should, but as that happens all too frequently in real life the slight air of confusion adds to the story.

Rendell takes the opportunity to highlight some of the massive differences in social class, the gap in attitudes between the generations, and the plethora of problems facing modern Britain. Hannah takes those positions on the edge once occupied by the young Mike Burden, who apart from his younger dress sense, has almost become a clone of Wexford. Reg of course produces no surprises in his views on society, where he speaks for the "silent" majority.

"Beat someone up and no matter if he never walks again, you're out after two years inside. Drunk driving and killing a couple of kids disqualifies you for a bit and sentences you to what amounts to nine months."
Frankly I made a mistake in not continuing to read this series, because they are an easy read with sharply drawn characters, intricate plots and a social commentary that clearly elucidates some of the problems our country faces.
"....and the irony was that he, a black officer of the law, was looked on with greater suspicion than a white thug."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How interesting, your summary of your views of Rendell exactly match mine. I started reading them as a (late) teenager, borrowing them from the Oxford library. I enjoyed them tremendously. I did not have a TV for some years and only caught a couple of the televised versions, but I agree with you that the characters are not as I imagined them in the books. In particular Burden seemed more complicated in the earlier books, and harsher, than he did in the couple of TV versions I saw.
However, I wonder if Rendell has come round in later books to make the characters more like their TV counterparts?
But also like you, I went for some years without reading any Wexford books for much the same reasons. Then I began again, probably because of some book club special offer, and was impressed, could not really understand why I'd stopped. I enjoyed End in Tears very much and am sure will enjoy the next one when I get around to it. (I don't think it is out in paperback yet.)

Returning to your "popular" theme- I wonder if the same applies to Colin Dexter? The first Morse book came out while I was working vacation jobs at Blackwells, and Dexter was being promoted as a new local author. I read all the Morse books from the start, and really enjoyed them. But then he became such a popular TV character (again, rather softened and romanticised from the few episodes I've seen), and my interest waned somewhat. Maybe the books became slightly less good, too.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for your comments, Maxine.
I think you are right the writers alter their characters to fit the TV image created by the actors. John Thaw was so dominant a character in the TV Morse that I really can't remember how I imagined Morse in the early books now.

6:31 AM  

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