Is this policeman prescient – or paranoid? The Monster in the Box, by Ruth Rendell

February 15, 2010 at 2:57 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

The moment that he locked eyes with Eric Targo, Reg Wexford was convinced that he had met the gaze of a psychopath. The sighting occurred right after the brutal murder of Elsie Carroll. From that moment,  Wexford could not shake the certainty that Targo, a neighbor of the Carroll’s, had killed Elsie. To his colleagues on the force, however, her husband seemed the obvious culprit – George Carroll had been away from home at the time of the crime. His explanation of his whereabouts rang false, because it was false. But the charge against the hapless Carroll could not be made to stick, and he was subsequently released. The murder of Elsie Carroll remained unsolved.

These events transpired decades ago, when Wexford was a rookie on the force. But disturbing memories of that case have recently come back to him with renewed force. Why? Because for the first time in many years, he has once again laid eyes on Eric Targo. Wexford feels an urgent need to talk to someone about his suspicions concerning this strange, shadowy figure. He decides to confide in Mike Burden, his longtime partner and by now a close  friend. He has great respect for Burden’s critical faculties and empathetic qualities. All the same, Wexford knows that he has to approach this topic with care. Two factors are operating: One, he is absolutely convinced of Targo’s guilt; and Two, he hasn’t a shred of evidence to support his belief. And what could the motive possibly have been? Nevertheless.  He knows; he is sure.

As he reaches back in time to tell this somber, bizarrre story, Wexford finds himself assailed by memories of  his past. The events he’s describing occurred some forty years ago but it feels more like four hundred, so drastically different was that long-ago world. At one point, Wexford recounts his visit to the Targo home to interview Eric about what he might have seen the night of the murder. As he was leaving, he had a brief talk with Targo’s wife. Kathleen Targo, heavily pregnant, was not cherished by her husband. Nevertheless. she was full of praise for him for staying home with their young son so that she could attend a dressmaking class:

“‘Eric’s so good staying here with Alan. I never miss.’ I had the impression she only said that to make me think all was fine with them on the domestic front. It was all part of the pretend-everything–in-the-garden’s-lovely attitude people adhered to then. ‘Well, I’ll have to miss it for my confinement.’

“They still said that then. Well, some of them did,the really old-fashioned ones, the sort who still put on a hat to go to the shops. There women in the villages round here, in the cottages without running water or electricity, where they referred to their husbands as ‘my master.'”

By this point, Burden is hard pressed to steer Wexford back to the subject at hand.

Other, more personal memories crowd in; these Wexford does not, for the most part, share with Burden. They are primarily of the romantic misadventures that preceded his meeting and marrying Dora. (I loved these sections of the novel.) There is nothing lighthearted about these stories; rather, they serve as a reminder of the ways in which poor and unformed judgment can so easily lead to disaster. Wexford knows that a benign destiny directed him to a chance encounter with the woman he would joyfully spend the rest of his life with. It could so easily not have happened…

‘To meet your future wife in a hotel where you are on holiday with your mother and she on holiday with her parents seems the reverse of romantic. He was learning that romance has little to do with location or  the exotic or glamorous circumstances, and everything to do with feelings. And learning too that you like a name because you love the person who is called by it.


Wexford’s recent sighting of Targo involved the latter’s visiting the home of a Moslem family, the Rahmans, ostensibly on some sort of computer-related  business. The Rahmans, in particular their elusive daughter Tamima, play a crucial role in this narrative. Rendell often writes about the ways in which various ethnic and religious groups rub up against one another in urban settings, and she doesn’t pull any punches or make many concessions to political correctness when she explores this sensitive subject. (A particularly explosive and memorable example occurs in the novel Simisola.)


Over the past several months, various people have mentioned to me that they were disappointed by The Monster in the Box. I began it, therefore, with some trepidation. As it turns out, I loved it. I think it the best Wexford novel since 1999’s Harm Done.. For me, Monster succeeded tremendously as a work of psychological suspense.  And of course, I love spending time with these characters, whom I invariably find fascinating.

Now, ultimately, Wexford formulates a theory concerning Eric Targo that some readers may find it tough to buy into. I can understand that reservation. But Rendell had me with her so completely by that point that I had little trouble in going along with Wexford’s surmise.

The glimpses into the past gave the book an autumnal feel. I’ve heard – read somewhere? – that with this novel,  Ruth Rendell is closing out the series. I will miss it, but luckily there are earlier entries that I’ve never read, or that I’d like to re-read. It is to those that I will turn.

I absolutely love the way this woman writes.

Ruth Rendell


  1. Pauline Cohen said,


    I thought Ruth Rendell was very clever to bring us Inspector Wexford as a young man in this book. Just when I thought there was nothing new she could do with him, she surprised me. I loved finding out how he met his wife. As well as a glance backward to Wexford’s early career, we were able to get a wonderful description of contemporary England with its diversity and attendant challenges. I do hope there are one or two Wexford novels to come, but I can undertand that Ms. Rendell may want to move on. She is an amazing writer and has written some of my favorite books.


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Yes, Pauline – I feel exactly the same way!

    • Vivienne Psaila said,

      Thisis the first novel i have read by Ruth Rendell, so I am not familiar with her style. I am unsure of the end. Let me explain. Did Weford interrupt his conversation with Ahmed so as not to hear that his suppostions, that Targo was in fact the pysjchopath killer he maintained he was and that Ahmed would have confirmed all his other killing?

      If so, would he not be denying justice because those cases would remain open.

      Even though I cannot really say I have closed this book, i will try and read all her novels.

      I have started Ruth Rendell after reading Colin Dexter and John Grisham – she is seriously good.

      thanking you

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Way Some People Die and The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross MacDonald Cold in Hand – John Harvey Monster in the Box, Simisola, and Judgement in Stone– Ruth Rendell The Accomplice – Elizabeth Ironside The Suspect […]

  3. In a race to the finish line, I finish The Girl Who Played with Fire… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] and serves, to a degree, to break the tension. In this regard, Larsson sometimes reminds me of Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill, although in most ways he could not be more different from these two favorites of […]

  4. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Steven Saylor, whose stories of ancient Rome are both enlightening and great fun to read; and Ruth Rendell, with her sly, ironic, dead-on depiction of the vagaries of the heart and mind. Enfin – […]

  5. Barbara said,

    I have read the Wexford novels from the beginning and liked this one very much. I understand the need foir DS Hannah but she is SO annoying! I would have liked to know what Ahmed was about to reveal as I do not have the imagination of Ruth Rendell. It was like a ‘hitchcock’ ending, which I do not like. I want things ended. I have one more of the series to read and hope there will be others. I do like Wexford.

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