Not in the Flesh: a Wexford novel by the incomparable Ruth Rendell

July 22, 2008 at 12:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural) ()

Jim Belbury lives alone. One of his chief – indeed, only – pleasures is going into the woods to hunt for truffles. In this task he is assisted by his dog Honey, a mixed breed with a terrific nose. Truffles are a rare find in Britain, but Honey does turn them up from time to time. One September day, however, Honey braves a cloud of truffle flies and unearths something that interests her far less: the bones of a human hand. Although Honey greets this discovery with indifference, her master, considerably shaken, whips out his phone and calls the police.

The remains found by Jim Belbury and his dog prove to be about eleven years old.  The job of investigating what appears to have been an unreported homicide falls to Reg Wexford and his team. They have their work cut out for them. Before they can begin to search for the killer, they must first identify the victim, no easy task in the circumstances. As if this is not enough of a challenge, a subsequent shocking discovery complicates things still further.

In the course of their investigation, the officers encounter a wide range of human types, from vulnerable, injured souls to characters that are by turns bizarre, irritating, eccentric and maddening. In particular, there is a menage a trois consisting of an ailing author, his wife, and his ex-wife. These two women – they refer to one another as ‘wife-in-law’ –  are constantly whispering in a conspiratorial manner and giggling like teen-agers. Their comments range from arch to rude and are almost always inappropriate, especially as they are being interrogated in a murder case!

Wexford and his colleagues are themselves sharply delineated characters. Mike Burden retains some of his former tendency to be judgmental, though he seems to have softened with age. Barry Vine, still on the scene, makes one of the crucial discoveries of the case. His mental processes – and emotional ones as well – are frequently aided by his passion for the operas of Bellini and Donizetti. Often these hardworking, conscientious officers find themselves  wrestling with personal demons and prejudices in ways that I find utterly believable, not to mention fascinating. These conflicts are dealt with dispassionately, with no descent into bathos and soap opera.

I love Rendell’s writing. There is never a wasted word or an extraneous modifier. In this scene, the detectives are searching a derelict property:

“The windowpanes were cracked, and the curtains that hung from a broken rail, ragged and stained. Damp had marked the ceiling with curious patterns, some shaped like parts of the human body, a leg here in a high-heeled shoe, a disembodied head, and others like maps of islands in an archipelago or close-ups of the surface of the moon.

Here we meet Bridget Cook, a minor character with critical information:

She was a big tall woman, one who, it was easy to believe, could have performed heavier and more demanding farmwork than picking fruit. Her face had once been lovely, the features having a classical stern beauty, but now it was bruised and marked by time and perhaps by human mistreatment. It was the face of a sculpture from ancient Greece, damaged by long exposure to winds and weather.

Alongside the murder investigation, there is a subplot concerning female circumcision. A sizable community of Somali immigrants has come to live in Kingsmarkham; members of that community still subscribe to this  practice.  Wexford’s offspring Sheila and Sylvia are active in a local group trying to put a stop to it. This problem could not wear a grimmer aspect; nonetheless, it is always bracing to spend time with Wexford’s loving, activist, and sometimes combative daughters.

As for Wexford himself, whenever I picture him, I see and hear John Thaw. For a while now I’ve had this idea that had Morse been a family man, he would have resembled Reginald Wexford. ( Is this just an odd fancy of mine, or has anyone else had the same notion?)

[John Thaw as Inspector Morse, with Kevin Whately  as Sergeant Lewis]

There is a story within a story in this novel. It’s purportedly an excerpt from a book written by a young woman named Selina Hexham. When she was twelve years old, Selina’s father, a loving, devoted but somewhat secretive man, used a day off from his teaching job to attend a friend’s funeral. He never came home and was never seen or heard from thereafter. As I read ‘Gone Without Trace: The Lost Father,’ I was made to participate fully in this family’s heartache, and as I reached the conclusion of this almost unbearably sad narrative, the novel seemed to have ascended to a whole new level.

Finally, in addition to the above mentioned virtues, Not in the Flesh is a cunningly plotted page turner. I shared the bafflement of the investigative team as well as their determination to get to the bottom of this extremely vexing mystery.

Ah, well, I might just have to go back and read or re-read Rendell’s entire oeuvre. (Thank goodness she’s so prolific!) I’d particularly like to revisit The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. I had some difficulties with that novel’s denouement, but it remains vivid in my mind as the most affecting fictional depiction of a disastrous marriage I’ve encountered since Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.

Ruth Rendell, aka Baroness Rendell of Babergh

5 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    Regarding your comments about the late John Thaw as your personification of Inspector Reginald Wexford, I’ve always thought that the actor George Baker who played Wexford in the TV programs in the UK, did an excellent job. If the series hasn’t appeared on television in the U.S., I believe it’s available on DVD.

    Pauline

  2. Kerrie said,

    Ruth Rendell is one of my favourite authors. I see she has 2 new books out this year, one of them as Barbara Vine. She really has made a huge, and I think under-estimated, contribution to British crime fiction, I think in recent years though there has been a merging of her two writing identities. Much less difference than there was between the RR and BV writing tones. George Baker fitted the bill for me too in the TV series.

  3. Roberta Rood said,

    Thaks for your comments, Pauline and Kerrie. I saw George Baker in “Simisola” several years ago. I remember liking his performance at the time of viewing; still, while reading Not in the Flesh, I kept seeing John Thaw.

    Kerrie, I think your comment concerning the merging of the Rendell/Vine writing identities is really astute – right on the money.

  4. Four fantastic (bookloving) friends - and Yours Truly « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] fellow mystery lover noted that our favorite genre was not represented. We then suggested Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell – or another title by Rendell or Barbara Vine (her pseudonym). I think the Vine […]

  5. The Millions: best fiction of the new millennium « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] I just have to ask: where is the crime fiction? No Reginald Hill, Kate Atkinson, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Alexander McCall Smith? IMHO, they are among the finest […]

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