Friday, August 20, 2010


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. 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.'


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - Thanks very much for this thoughtful review. I understand exactly the points you're making, too, although I confess I think I liked this one better than you did. No matter, though, you do make solid points.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

I liked this book more than you did, Norman, but I sympathise with and understand the flaws that you put forward. I agree that the teenage girl racism subplot was heavy handed, and also that the ending was very obviously signposted far too early on. But, I still liked it.
It is interesting what you write about cultural communities. Living and working in London for so long I am very used to being in the minority of a veritable patchwork quilt of languages etc. But I am quite surprised on the occasions I visit my daughter, at university in a southern coastal town, at the uniformity of colour and race - both in the university itself and in the town/environs. I was quite struck by it. I suppose everyone's experiences of community living are different.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Margot- Thanks.
Many years ago an Asian friend asked me to fill in for him as a locum [sometime in the 1970s]. He told me about the technician who was at this hospital where I was going to work and said that the technician did not like him because, and pointed to his skin.
After I had worked the day I came back, and told my friend "You are right he doesn't like you, but it is because you are a qualified doctor as well as a qualified dentist with a string of qualifications after your name, and he doesn't like me either."

We still have race relations problems in both our countries, but things have got a lot better than they were; and whatever those who blame the USA and Britain for all the world's troubles will say, other countries are far worse.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Maxine- I think you are right. My own experience up to the late 1980s in Camberwell, Chelsea, Bristol [sharing with a Jamaican friend], Luton and Kingston meant that I was stunned at Devon's pale uniformity when we first moved here.
This racial uniformity has changed considerably in the intervening years. But visiting King's College Hospital a few years ago, and comparing my recent brief stay in the Royal Devon and Exeter the ethnicity of the staff is very different.
The good news is a Caribbean food stall has arrived in Exeter and I can enjoy the best ackee and saltfish with rice and beans since I was in Bristol. ;o)

I agree though was really enjoying the Monster in the Box, until the heavy handedness and the telegraphed plot spoilt it for me. Also one has only to see the war memorials round here, and to think about the Blitz, and miner's strikes to understand family solidarity is not the sole prerogative of recent immigrants.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Kerrie said...

I found the time frame of this book rather strange Norman, late 90s??, because I've thought earlier novels were set more recently than that. Someone did suggest it is a novel that has been sitting on the shelf for a while, but if so, I think, only partly finished, and maybe just on the shelf of Wexford's mind. If this is Reg's swansong, then I'm disappointed. I did, however, enjoy it more than you. My review is here

3:22 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Kerrie, I am pleased I am not the only one who was a little confused by the timeline.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous chelsea said...

Thanks for discussing the book in such an in-depth way so others who haven't read it can get a feel for it.

I don't like books which exhibit some of the traits you've explained. I can't overlook bigoted opinions, like the description of the shopkeeper (unless the author and protagonist are trying to counter that); I just can't enjoy the book.

There's so much to read that I'll just move on to other books.

2:54 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Chelsea.
I am still confused at what Rendell was getting at in this book. Hannah and Jenny were called 'benevolent racists" by Tamima's aunt, and there were several examples such as a comment by Hannah that "Yasmina keeps it spotless" that clearly were meant to show that behind the liberal facade Hannah, Jenny and Wexford were really like Victorian missionaries in their attitudes to immigrants.
Perhaps I am too sensitive...but there were other anomalies. It spoilt for me what otherwise was a very good story.

4:00 AM  

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