A New Lease of Death by Ruth Rendell

NewLease
A New Lease of Death
Ruth Rendell
Originally Published 1967
Inspector Wexford #2
Preceded by From Doon With Death
Followed by Wolf to the Slaughter

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.

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell

FromDoon
From Doon with Death
Ruth Rendell
Originally Published 1964
Inspector Wexford #1
Followed by A New Lease of Death

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.