Originally Published 1967
Inspector Wexford #2
Preceded by From Doon With Death
Followed by Wolf to the Slaughter
It’s impossible to forget the violent bludgeoning to death of an elderly lady in her home. Even more so when it’s your first murder case.
Wexford believed he’d solved Mrs Primero’s murder fifteen years ago. It was no real mystery. Everyone knew Painter, her odd-job man, had done it. There had never been any doubt in anyone’s mind. Until now…
Henry Archery’s son is engaged to Painter’s daughter. Only Archery can’t let the past remain buried. He wants to prove Wexford wrong…
When he starts probing the lives of the witnesses questioned all those years ago, he stirs up more than old ghosts.
When I reviewed the first of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford mysteries, From Doon With Death, I described it as a competent but unsurprising plot. The bright spot for me was the character of Wexford who, while not a flashy or big personality, approached the case in a likeable and straightforward manner.
I was a little disappointed when, about halfway into A New Lease of Death, I realized that he would not play a large active role in this investigation. Certainly his presence looms large over the story but it is not his investigation and his biggest contribution is to recap the details of the crime at the heart of this story.
The novel begins with Wexford fielding a meeting with Henry Archery, a clergyman, who wishes to discuss one of his old cases. It turns out that the man’s son is engaged to the daughter of the man who Wexford identified as the killer of an elderly woman and who was executed. Archery wants to look into the case again to see if Wexford made a mistake as he and his wife are unwilling to consent to the marriage otherwise.
Wexford recaps the details of the case and gives his opinion that his reasoning was sound though he does not object to Archery’s plan to meet and talk with some of the witnesses. The investigation that follows explores ideas of family secrets and respectability but I think Archery’s experiences conducting the investigation are as much the focus of the novel as the information he discovers.
I commented in my review of the previous novel how differing social attitudes affect a modern reading of that novel with a contemporary one and I suspect that the same is true here. I think that a reader in 1967 was expected to feel a degree of sympathy with the attitudes of Reverend Archery at the start of the novel that a reader today may find a little harder to extend to him.
The attitudes in question relate to Archery’s belief that criminality is hereditary. Rendell’s novel examines that belief and its implications at points throughout the novel though it ultimately sidesteps having to take a stance on the matter. The thing is, Rendell writes as though the reader’s expected reaction will be to think he is a sound-minded and diligent parent rather than to think him narrow-minded and judgmental.
Rendell’s novel takes this character on a journey that if it isn’t quite transformative, will at least shake him and present him in a (somewhat) compromised light in terms of his own personal morality. I imagine that in the time that the book was written this would have been quite shocking, particularly in light of his position as a clergyman, but common social attitudes have shifted enough that I do not think many readers will be shocked or outraged by his thoughts and actions.
To put it more simply: I didn’t think that the character journey said anything particularly interesting or profound about the themes it was discussing. That is a problem because Rendell has made it the focus of the story and, if we look simply at the case I think the reader is likely going to feel disappointed.
The circumstances of the murder are relatively simple and much is already known to the reader at the start of the novel. There are some questions of motivation and the details of family relationships to uncover but the novel lacks much in the way of twists or surprises, relying instead on engaging the reader with the exploration of its characters. Anyone approaching this in search of a puzzle plot will likely feel very disappointed.
I did appreciate Rendell’s attention to character not only for the characters we may suspect of the crime but the other more incidental figures in the case. They are a surprisingly complex group and I think she succeeds in creating characters who have interesting backstories and that sometimes subvert expectations.
Had the narrative concentrated more closely on those elements I suspect I would be writing a more enthusiastic review. Unfortunately I did not care for Archery, his son or their journeys as protagonists and I struggled to engage with the details of the case itself.
In spite of those frustrations however I find I really enjoy reading Rendell’s prose and I think there are some wonderfully atmospheric and poetic moments within this story. The themes and the plot of this novel didn’t work for me but I am hopeful that the third Wexford story, Wolf to the Slaughter, will be more to my taste.
This book was released in the United States under the alternative title ‘Sins of the Fathers’ which is, in my opinion, a much better fit for the book.