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Nashville Scene Mysteries of Life

Ruth Rendell's mystery and suspense novels transcend their genre

By Michael Sims

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  "When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance," wrote the great Raymond Chandler, "it becomes literature." Well, the creator of Philip Marlowe should know. Chandler went on to say, "That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over a ball."

I quote Chandler at such length because he perfectly describes the ways in which the mystery and suspense novels of Ruth Rendell transcend their genre. Her quietly elegant style, her grasp of the complexity of human motivations, her expert turning of the screws of suspense--all of these attributes raise her above her workaday colleagues. I almost said her peers, but I'm not sure she has any. The only mystery writer compared to her nowadays is P.D. James, creator of Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray, and their styles are quite different. Rendell's equally literate but more streamlined novels--such as her latest, Harm Done--manage to sketch character and build suspense with less meandering exposition. And her characters don't arrive accompanied by page-long descriptions.

The great pleasure of series characters is that you get to know them so well over the years, as their careers and lives change. Rendell's detective is the compassionate, slyly humorous, and literature-loving Reginald Wexford, chief inspector in the smallish English town of Kingsmarkham. Unlike most of his colleagues in fiction (and probably in real life), Wexford is not a bitter cynic as much as a sad idealist. To compare him with his fellow imaginary sleuths, Wexford has the tired but hopeful air of Maigret, rather than the genius-level unreality of Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe.

Not surprisingly, Wexford's democratic ordinariness resists the eccentricities and exaggeration that Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout employed to make Holmes and Wolfe so colorful. But whereas Conan Doyle's and Stout's books were always basically about their detectives, Rendell's are almost as much about the perpetrators and their victims.

In Rendell's latest Wexford mystery, Harm Done, two or three plot lines--troubles that may or may not be connected--feed into one of her longer novels. Two teenagers disappear, then one returns with an outrageous account of what happened. Then a child vanishes. Around the same time, an elderly child molester is released from prison and returns home to live with his middle-aged daughter, only to meet with fear and violence from the neighbors. As a result, Wexford and his underlings find themselves in the unpleasant position of protecting a man they despise.

The most disturbing aspect of this novel is in yet another ongoing subplot, about a wealthy businessman who is beating and even cutting his wife. Secure in the knowledge that his spouse is incapable of reporting the crimes, the man stands in his kitchen and calmly lies to the police. Wexford knows the monster is lying, but the wife refuses to testify against her husband. With horror and anger, Wexford investigates, sees the abuse's effect on the couple's children, and waits for a chance to act. Rendell quietly lays the groundwork, then springs one inevitable but surprising development after another.

Considering her empathy for her characters, it's no wonder that Rendell frequently abandons detective stories for Dostoyevskyan forays into the minds of criminals. She writes some of these books under the pen name Barbara Vine. In their relentless dissection of the age-old cycle of motivation, anger, retribution, and remorse, both Vine's and Rendell's detectiveless suspense tales are reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith's terrifying novels about the sociopath Tom Ripley. But most of these characters are more ordinary, frequently just average Joes who make mistakes that snowball uncontrollably.

It isn't uncommon to find that the later books in a detective series are better than the earlier ones. The author has been growing and learning and getting to know her characters. This is true of Rex Stout and Ellery Queen, and it is true of Ruth Rendell. Overall, her books are getting better--richer, deeper, more rooted in the malaise of confusion and error that is real life. Recent additions to the Wexford canon, such as the splendid Simisola and the absolutely perfect The Veiled One, demonstrate that her range keeps expanding. Rendell's erstwhile detective wrestles with criminals and victims entangled in drugs, missing children, spouse abuse, environmental issues, the long shadows of family sins--the gamut of ills that society has suffered since the first Neanderthals banded together for protection.

The true conundrum is how mystery writers take these sordid toxins from everyday life, mix in a puzzle and a compelling central character, and create satisfying entertainment. However they manage it, no one does it better than Ruth Rendell. Harm Done is a fine example.

Early crimes

The Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint is rereleasing the early Wexford cases in handsome matching trade paperbacks, priced at $11. They include such classics from the early 1970s as Murder Being Once Done, in which Wexford is on sick leave in London and winds up assisting his policeman nephew to find out who left a body in a cemetery, and the chilling and heart-rending No More Dying Then, in which children are disappearing for more than one reason. For admirers of literate mysteries, I can't recommend Ruth Rendell too highly.

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