I have mentioned before that my parents’ love of crime fiction played an important role in my formative years. One of my strongest memories growing up was my mother’s stack of Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter novels, one of which always seemed to be on hand for those sorts of occasions in which you were stuck in a waiting room.
While I did get into Morse in my late teens, I actually never got around to trying Rendell either in print or in the televised adaptations. Given that those starred one of my favorite actors, George Baker, I am not sure quite how I have achieved that. I probably should rectify that…
From Doon with Death was Ruth Rendell’s debut novel and concerns the disappearance of a fairly modest, conservative housewife and the subsequent discovery of her body in a wood, strangled to death. Among the clues that Inspector Wexford will have to work with are a tube of lipstick in an unusual shade and a set of books with messages all inscribed with notes to Minna from Doon.
Rendell hangs a lot of the narrative on the question of Doon’s identity, revealing something of that person’s personality to the reader in the form of short excerpts from letters that they had written to Minna as caps to the chapters. The way the book is structured, it will all build to a moment in which that identity is revealed and if the reader feels surprised it will likely result in a rush of excitement and general good feeling.
Unfortunately I think that this reveal does not really hold up, as it heavily reflects the novel’s age and aspects of the time in which it was written. I have mentioned that at times I have found not having the appropriate context or period knowledge to be a barrier in solving an older crime novel but here I feel that not belonging to the mindset of that period makes it easier to predict where it was headed and lessens the power of the ending.
It is not so much that this story could not be told today but that it would be told differently and our sympathies might be expected to be somewhat different. For instance, there is a male character who is treated far more softly and sympathetically than I think he would be had the novel were to be written today.
Whether the reader is surprised by where the novel goes, I think the appeal of the book is in the very competent execution of those ideas. Let’s face it, the clues in this case are fairly slight so it was a pleasant surprise that she manages to lay a convincing trail to the killer with such a weak starting point. There are no significant developments or twists along the way, at least until those final scenes, but just diligent police work such as Wexford and Burden conducting interviews and going from store-to-store in the hopes of finding where that striking shade of lipstick had been purchased.
I found Wexford to be a likable figure as a sleuth. He is not flashy and has no particular character tics, at least in this novel, that would distinguish him from detectives in scores of other procedurals yet I appreciated his matter of fact attitude toward the case. The pairing with Burden works well and I found their interactions to be quite entertaining.
I was a little less fond of the use of a trap which is used to prove a case – something that I think is usually pretty uninventive and underwhelming in these sorts of stories. Perhaps more importantly, I have seen some readers question whether this is a fair play mystery as Wexford receives some information in the form of a telephone call, the contents of which we are not privy to.
My own thought is that while Wexford receives helpful information that we don’t have, the reader ought to be able to get ahead of him by at least thinking to ask a question. While it is a manipulative move designed to try to add power to his explanation at the end, I think that information is only needed if something does not occur to the reader that they might figure out for themselves. I think the reader ought to be able to come to that conclusion for themselves so while it may technically not be entirely fair, I think the impact is minor.
Overall I felt that this was a solid if unremarkable start to the Wexford line of novels but it is one that gives me hope for when the time comes to read some of the later installments. What makes me sad is that Terrence Hardiman, who did such an amazing job narrating this, did not record the later stories when they were turned into audiobooks as I had loved his voicing of Wexford and Rendell’s prose. He does a great job here voicing the different characters distinctly and he is easy to follow so I would certainly recommend that recording if audiobooks are your bag.