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When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking…  A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.

After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.

Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.

Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.

I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know from this review that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.

Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them. And no, I probably won’t go and see the film.

You can read more about Lawrence Block and his books here. And here’s another review of the film.

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Here I am again breaking into a series. A Murder Unmentioned (2014) is the sixth in a series set mostly in New South Wales in the 1930s and featuring Rowland Sinclair. Although of course the story is self-contained, a number of the characters and their relationships have obviously been developed in earlier books, and I can’t help thinking that knowing that development might make them seem a bit more real.

Rowland Sinclair is the black sheep of a wealthy family of graziers. He lives an unconventional lifestyle in a mansion in Sydney where he dabbles in painting and takes up left wing causes with three bohemian friends who all seem to be members of the Communist Party. But a visit from the police sends him hurrying back to the family property, Oaklea, near Yass. It seems that his father’s death fourteen years ago, believed to be at the hands of a burglar, isn’t that simple. The reader already knows from the prologue that the burglar story is untrue. But now the gun which killed his father has been found in a dam on the property, along with some items which were believed to have been stolen at the time. So if not a burglar, then who? What motive has a former employee for casting suspicion on Rowland? And why is Rowland so unwilling to talk about it?

I think this novel is best seen as a family saga-cum-historical novel, rather than a crime story. Who killed Father is at the centre of it, but there are lots of family happenings that have only a general relevance to the main game – for example the machinations of Lucy Bennett, the fire at the homestead or Rowland’s sister-in-law Kate’s pregnancy. There is also a lot of material that is included because it is interesting, and of the period. The first chapter sees Rowland taking a flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, with a young Nancy Bird looking on. Everyone’s heard of Kingsford Smith, but some may not know that Nancy Bird was in fact the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence. These characters play no further part in the story – though Rowland’s flying does – so why introduce them, other than for historical interest? Rowland goes to a meeting of the NSW Centre Party, and has a run-in with Eric Campbell, who is trying to turn his fascist New Guard movement into a political party – without success, as it happens. Apparently Rowland has crossed swords with Campbell and his New Guard in earlier books, but it has only the most oblique relevance here. Edna Walling is redesigning the gardens at Oaklea, and Jock Garden of the Communist Party, Bob Menzies of the United Australia Party and Frank Green, Sydney gangster, all make an appearance.  Each chapter begins with what purports to be an excerpt from a newspaper of the time – though I’m not sure if all of them are genuine. All this historical detail is quite fun, but not really necessary in solving the crime. To put it another way, someone has to find the gun in the dam, but it doesn’t have to be Edna Walling.

Gentill has a fairly formal style of writing. I think this is a deliberate strategy when used in relation to conversations between the characters, where she tries, with some success, to catch the tone of relationships in the 1930’s between men and women, bosses and workers, family members and friends. Thus Rowland says of his painting: ‘My father would not have approved of my work … He would not have tolerated it.’ Or his brother Wilfred: ‘Kate was under the impression you admired her.’ Or Lucy’s father: ‘I knew your father, you know … fine man. I expect you’re cut from the same cloth.’ The 1930s feel is heightened by the similarly of the prose style to the newspaper excerpts. I don’t remember seeing the word ‘chums’ used in ordinary prose since I last read a Girl’s Own Annual. But there are too many clichés, such as ‘his jaw tightened’, ‘his eyes flashed fury’, or ‘his voice was thick with contempt’. Just because run-of-the-mill writers may have used such commonplaces in the 1930s doesn’t mean they should be used now in a book about the 1930s. By all means ensure that Rowland raises his hat to ladies, but don’t let it become a platitude.

I like history, so I found the story fun. There is always something of interest happening. Furthermore, the plot so far as it related to the death of Rowland’s father works well, though I thought the final resolution a bit contrived. If, however, I put on my historian’s hat, I’d have to wonder about the relationship between Rowland and his three friends – two male, one female. Apart from occasionally saying something about capitalist domination, the two men seem to lack the passion and conviction it would have taken to be a Communist. Their relationship seems more like Bunter to Wimsey than comrade to comrade (though Rowland is a fellow-traveller, not a paid up Communist). Putting in a lot of historical detail doesn’t of itself make a book genuinely reflect the history of the times. This is a nice try, rather than the creative reimagining at the heart of the best historical novels.

You can read more about Sulari Gentill and her work here. I love the book’s cover.

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I’m eternally grateful to my book club. As I think I’ve explained before, we have a fairly random way of choosing what we’re going to read. Sometimes it’s a disaster, and sometimes it comes up trumps. This is one of the latter times, and I’m very pleased that more of less by chance I’ve been introduced to this author and read this book. The Gingerbread Woman was published in 2000, and Johnston has written a number of novels before this, and several after it. But I found it a perfect introduction to her work.

Clara Barry has returned to Dublin from a stint in New York as a guest lecturer on Modern Irish Literature. ‘Not Synge, Yeats or Joyce. That’s a mug’s game; that’s big business these days, something I’ve got no head for.’ She specialises in writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien and John Banville. (I mention this here because these are the very writers Johnston can be compared with, though she self-deprecatingly claims that the Irish literary establishment considers her a second-rate writer.) Clara is recuperating from an initially unspecified operation – though the hurt seems as much psychological as physical – and finding it hard going. One day out walking she meets Lars, a young man exercising his dog; he too is miserable. Against both their expectations they become friends, and manage to get on with their lives the better for having met. I’m not giving anything away here. You can read that much on the back cover.

The story is deceptively simple. What matters is the relationships between the characters. Both Clara and Lars are unhappy and can be difficult; Johnston makes their interactions are wonderfully real. The other main characters are Clara’s doctor, her mother, and Lars’s wife Caitlin, now dead but still very much alive to him; they too have substance and authenticity. The book starts with Clara’s assessment of her mother as someone who ‘makes jam’. She also makes ‘shortbread biscuits, sponge cakes, rich fruit cake, brandy snaps … I’m sure you get the point.’ But Lars has quite another reaction to her when he meets her, and I was left with the feeling that Johnston is cleverly suggesting that Mrs Barry is subtly different from the impressions both have of her. It is she who articulates what is to me the key message of the book; that recovery from tragedy is a willed process. ‘We have obligations, you know, to the people who love us, if not to society,’ she says. Clara’s view of her relationship with the doctor is clearly not the same as his view of it, though this is never something Clara articulates – it’s just delicately indicated.

The structure of the story is also wonderfully subtle. Most of it is told in the first person by Clara; those sections that are from Lars’s perspective are in the third person. But as well as telling her story in the present, Clara is writing ‘notes’ for a novel to be called ‘The Gingerbread Woman’ that explain her recent history in New York, gradually bringing the reader up to date on the reasons for her return to Dublin. And Lars also spends a lot of time thinking about the past – in particular the death of his wife and child. When Clara learns his story, she thinks like the author she is that ‘maybe one day I may use his story; steal it from him,’ which is of course what Johnston in a sense has already done. So the story is operating on a number of levels at once in a very satisfying way.

Though I guess you could call the plot ‘domestic’, it has wider resonance with recent Irish history. Lars is from Northern Ireland, and the tragedy he experienced happened there. Several of Johnston’s earlier books deal with ‘the fading of the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the 20th century’. That’s not really the case here, but Clara nevertheless doesn’t want know about events in Northern Ireland: ‘I just don’t want to hear about the North … None of the gutted-by-history-crap’. But she also admits ‘We’re no great shakes here either’, and though history provides the occasion for her meeting with Lars, it is the quality of the relationship between them that is important.

The book also raises the question of what it is in the style of a writer that lifts a book above the level of competent writing – because Johnston’s writing seems to me to be brilliant. Every word seems to be exactly right – though this in itself isn’t an explanation. Why is it right? How much is it that I like what she is saying, that it resonates with me? Consider, for example, this passage: ‘Why do I have … facetious thoughts clogging up my mind? Perhaps this is the reason why I have never become a highly regarded novelist or a major academic.’ But then she goes on the question whether ‘humorous self-deprecation’ is a symptom of ‘that middle class malaise called complacency’. It’s pure genius.

This is another book where Schubert is important – this time it’s Shepherd on a Rock. In a recent post on the crime story Death and the Maiden, I suggested that the cultural details seemed added to make it sound real, rather than somehow being integral to the story. That’s not the case here – or at least I didn’t find it so. You can listen to the song here. There’s not a lot about Johnston on the internet, but you can read a little about her and some of her books here.

PS Some of my book club friends thought Clara was over-dramatizing her operation. I bow to their greater knowledge, but didn’t let it spoil the story.

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I picked up Death and the Maiden (2011) for no better reason than I liked the title – Schubert’s string quartet No 14 in D minor of the same name is one of my favourites. In this book, however, it is the song Schubert wrote in 1817, for which the quartet is named and which is the theme of the second movement, that is being referred to – though in my view with doubtful relevance. I also discovered that this is not a stand-alone story; there are already five other stories featuring the main characters; the books are collectively referred to as the Liebermann Papers.

The story is set in Vienna in 1903. A singer from the court opera is found dead. Is it an accident, suicide, or murder? Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt of the Vienna security office is called in to investigate, and he is joined, as usual in this series, by his young friend Dr Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. They find that the court opera is a hotbed of rumour and jealousy, in part aimed at the Director, Gustav Mahler. It seems that the Mayor of Vienna, the powerful demagogue Karl Lueger, may also be involved. Then there is the singer’s psychiatrist, who rejects Freud’s theories and has links with the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. Is it sex, or politics, or both that lie behind the singer’s death?

The turn of the century was obviously a fascinating time in Vienna, and Tallis makes frequent reference to contemporary events and movements. On one hand there is the intellectual ferment that produced the theories of Freud, the music of Mahler and the Secessionist movement in art and design. Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze gets a passing mention. Both Rheinhardt and Liebermann are musical – this may have been what brought them together in the first place – and there are lots of references to the music of Chopin, Mozart, Brahms and Mahler. Indeed there is a sub-plot involving the lives of two fictional musicians in which Liebermann unravels a mystery by reference to a composition by one of them. On the other hand there is political turmoil as the tottering Hapsburg Empire struggles against the nationalist forces tearing it apart, and demagogues like Lueger stir up popular discontent, often directing it into anti-Semitic channels. Apparently Lueger really did say ‘I decide who is a Jew’, though not in the context found in this story.

You’d hope with all this material to work with – both real and imagined – that Tallis would have produced an absorbing crime story. But the plot doesn’t really work for me. Some of what seem like non sequiturs– such as the scenes with Liebermann’s former fiancé – may be excused as making more sense in the context of the series. But Liebermann’s role is supposed to be central to the story. He is supposed to use theories about the subconscious as an investigative tool, on the premise that ‘guilty people are always giving themselves away – unconsciously’. Lieberman suggests Freudian motives (hysterical and oedipal) for several of the characters’ actions, but I don’t really find it convincing. His explanations are overly simplistic, and no more compelling than the theory the traditional doctor puts up that the singer had a weak nervous system. Tallis never lets the poor woman speak for herself. He makes the point that forensic science was making great strides just at the same time as psychoanalysis; the relatively new practice of autopsy is important in the story, as are some other forensic details. But overall, Rheinhardt doesn’t have much concrete evidence to go on, placing too much weight on the debatable influence of the subconscious.

Perhaps I would have responded better to all this if I felt the book was truly well written. It’s one of those cases where I find it hard to say just what was disappointing about the style. It’s perfectly adequate writing – but it just doesn’t go beyond that. Neither Rheinhardt nor Liebermann come alive for me, despite Tallis’s attempts to humanise them through music, food and family relationships. And Vienna doesn’t really come alive either; the details have a faintly researched air, rather than one of verisimilitude. This sense that Tallis may be trying too hard is summed up for me by the title. Rheinhardt sings and Liebermann plays Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, with an English translation that shows the maiden pleading with death to spare her, only to have death reply that she has nothing to fear and can sleep softly in his arms. There is no sense in which these sentiments are represented in the story – so why make it the title?

Overall, I didn’t hate it. I was just a bit disappointed that with such rich ingredients it didn’t turn out better. You can read more about Frank Tallis and the Liebermann Papers here. And you can listen to ‘Death and the Maiden’ here.

This is by no means the only crime novel in which Freud appears. Try, for example, The Interpretation of Murder (2007) by Jed Rubenfeld.

 

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I liked Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) so much that I included it in my ‘best of’ 2013 list. You can read my review here. So naturally I had to see the movie. One of things I particularly like about the book is the clever way misdirection is used to create suspense, and I was interested to see how this would be translated on film. I think it worked pretty well – though some other things I thought were strengths of the book were missing from the movie.

The film follows the story of the book pretty faithfully, with only slight abbreviations – not surprising, since Gillian Flynn wrote the screen play. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? In the book, both Nick and Amy admit to being unreliable narrators; this is less clear in the movie. Amy’s diary comes into the book much sooner than it does in the film, removing one source of misdirection, but I think viewers who haven’t read the book will still get the same reaction to the major misdirection that drives the plot that you get reading the book. I knew what was coming and I still enjoyed it. There isn’t much physical violence in the book, but what there is, is presented very graphically in the film; a bit of a look-away-now moment for me. But overall, a clever film, well acted, darkly funny in parts, and exciting in others.

One of the friends I saw the movie with, who hadn’t read the book, felt that the ending was not really credible. She wondered whether the actor who played Nick, Ben Affleck, was too pleasant and sympathetic – even given his behaviour in the story. In the book, the reader learns a lot more about his talent for misdirection, and his psychology, his inner thoughts and the influence of his father, all of which present him as flawed and accentuate his sense of being ‘hollow’, even while they explain it. I also wondered if she might have found the ending a little unsatisfactory if it was assumed that the story could be taken as a realistic portrayal of a marriage – after all, the blurb for the film says it ‘unearths the secrets at the heart of a modern marriage’. I thought the story of Nick and Amy in the book was satire, not an accurate representation. On those grounds, the ending of the book is quite appropriate. But the film wasn’t played as satire, (at least I don’t think so, and maybe I’m wrong about the book anyway), so the alternative of a resolution that is supposed to be realistic and takes ‘modern marriage’ at its face value perhaps didn’t work perfectly.

The other major difference I found between the book and the movie was in the setting. In both the book and the film, Nick and Amy have lost their jobs in New York because of the Global Financial Crisis, and moved to Nick’s decaying home town in Missouri. In the movie, they live in a big, well-appointed house in a pleasant-looking neighbourhood and Nick drives an expensive-looking SUV. It’s true that the shopping mall in the town is shown as derelict, as it is in the book, but I thought the film completely lacked the sense of economic decline that characterised the town in the book – ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ and its surroundings – ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. This is a pity, because for me, Nick and Amy’s relationship can also be described as ‘post-humanity’ – rather than a ‘normal’ breakdown of modern marriage. The movie is about what individual husbands and wives can do to each other; the book puts this behaviour into a much more problematic social and economic context. Yes, I said above that the author wrote the screen play …

Even given these reservations, I still enjoyed the movie. There will always be a debate about whether a book is better than the movie made of it, or whether reading the book spoils the movie. In most cases I find I like the book best, though there are notable exceptions to this rule (see Lord of the Rings, where I loved both, and thought the film even added something, and the Harry Potter movies which improved on the books by removing some things). You can read a discussion of this film v this book here. And you can see a trailer for the film here.

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This is the book I mentioned recently when reviewing Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012) – I wrote about it but forgot to post it at the time. So here it is now.

I suppose it had to happen, but it’s always disappointing to find you don’t respond warmly to a book by an author you normally admire. This is the case for me with Gentlemen of the Road (2007). Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favourite books; you can read my review here. And I’ve also recently enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; that’s reviewed here. But I just can’t get my head properly around this one, though I can see there is much to like.

The story, which is set in about 950 AD, concerns two Jewish wanderers who scratch a living by thieving, trickery and any other nefarious pastime that comes their way. One, Zelikman, is originally from what is now Germany, the other, Amram, is Abyssinian. They are at this time wandering in the Caucuses. Despite arguing over ‘whose definition of “easy money” was the least commensurate with lived experience’, they agree to transport a dispossessed and fugitive prince from neighbouring Khazaria back to his mother’s family in Azerbaijan, though he wishes to return to Khazaria to avenge himself on the usurper who has killed his parents. ‘A gentleman of the road worthy of the title would convey him to the nearest slave market and see what price he fetched,’ says Zelikman. ‘I fear that explains our overall lack of success at this game, Zelikman,’ says Amram. ‘Because I’m not going to do that.’ Unsurprisingly, fulfilling their agreement turns out to be even more difficult and dangerous than this cynical pair imagined.

To my ignorant surprise, Khazaria, ‘the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea’ turns out to have actually existed. Zelikman can hardly believe that there really is a place ‘where a Jew rules over other Jews as king’. Towards the end of the first millennium, the Khazars, whose settlements on the Volga formed a multicultural buffer between Christian Byzantium and the Islamic peoples of the East, adopted a form of Judaism, and welcomed persecuted Jews from both West and East. Jewish Radanite traders on the Silk Road were also welcomed there. I was even more surprised to find that the Rus referred to in the story were actually Vikings originally from Scandinavia; indeed the Rus eventually defeated the Khazars and seized their land, becoming in time ‘Russians’.

I think that my unfamiliarity with the history and geography of the region underlies the problem I had with the book. With the Khrazars, the Arsiyah (Moslims), the Rus and the soldiers of the usurper Buljan, all variously hunting the heroes, or fighting each other, or changing sides, I got confused about who was who and what on earth was happening. I also had to re-read some of Chabon’s very long sentences to catch their meaning – though I did wonder whether reading the book on a Kindle contributed to this. I think Chabon is deliberately writing in a somewhat ponderous style, in homage to the writers of earlier adventure stories like Alexander Dumas. And the long sentences are often quietly funny, as in ‘The African patted the horse’s neck and spoke to it in a velvet language, and Hanukkah caught sight of the broad ax slung across the giant’s back and began to regret his decision to call attention to himself, because kindness to horses was often accompanied in soldiers by an inclination, when it came to men, to brutality.’ The story was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, which accounts for the disconcertingly discrete nature of each chapter.

Writing swashbuckling adventure stories in deliberately stilted prose isn’t usual territory for Chabon. But a closer look reveals the presence of many of his characteristics. His interest in a historical Jewish state matches his creation of an imaginary one in the Sitka Federal District of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His subtle humour suffuses this story, as it does in his other books. Who can’t enjoy such wry observations as ‘Mercy was a failing, a state of error, and in the case of children, a terrible waste of time.’ Or Zelikman’s ‘I don’t save lives … I just prolong their futility.’

Having got this far with my review, I find I’ve talked myself round. I do like the book, and suggest it is very worth reading. It’s just a good idea to know something about the setting first. You can find out more about Khazania here, and Michael Chabon here.

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I’ve lost count of how many Detective Inspector Wexford stories Rendell has written, but I think No Man’s Nightingale (2013) is the second since his retirement from the Kingsmarkam police force. You can read my review of the first, The Vault (2011), here. I thought that was perhaps not her best effort, but this one is vintage Rendell.

The vicar of St Peter’s Church is found strangled in the vicarage. Being female, of Irish and Indian parentage, socially liberal, a moderniser of the liturgy and a single mother hasn’t made Sarah Hussain universally popular, but Detective Superintendent Burden is nevertheless struggling to work out who could possibly have committed such a crime. Wexford, still a close friend of Burden’s, is happy to assist, finding that his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while stimulating, is not enough to fill his retirement. There is also a sub plot, very loosely linked to the main one, about the family of Maxine Sams, who is the Wexfords’ cleaner. The reader knows that the murder must have been committed by one of the characters in the story – Rendell would never stoop to a deus ex machina ending – and there are certainly clues. But I only recognised some of them as such when I found out who dun it, and was intrigued right to the end.

Wexford not still being a policeman, this is not strictly a police procedural. He misses having his former police powers: ‘When for years you have had authority it is very hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stay disappeared’. ‘Not for the first time, but perhaps more positively and tellingly than before, he was realising how insignificant he had become in the great scheme of law and order, of lawmaking and law implementing, of having nothing to do in a society where doing things was all-important.’ But Rendell cleverly contrasts Burden’s orthodox police approach with Wexford’s more intuitive one; he doesn’t need powers other than those inherent in him. Burden discounts the search for causes: ‘We are not going to identify any recognisable sort of motive here,’ he says. ‘And searching for a motive such as jealousy or envy or gain, is only going the hinder any progress we’re making.’ But it is Wexford’s observations of people and what drives them that ultimately solve the puzzle – though not without a few false starts. The ‘possibility [that] had been building up in his mind, increasingly until it had become a conviction … had nothing to do with reason, it was some kind of intuition.’ ‘Ridiculous, he told himself. Like some nineteenth-century novel. Wilkie Collins maybe. But if it was an illusion, it was one he couldn’t get out of his head.’ Ultimately, Burden has to agree that Wexford’s instincts are correct. ‘I hate having to admit it but I think you’re right,’ he says. Rendell comes down decisively on the side of perception and insight into human behaviour over the more limited assessment of means and opportunity.

This is not a fast paced thriller; it at least as much a novel of manners as it is a crime story. Indeed a good deal of the interest for me lay in characters and situations not directly related to the original murder. There is a good slice of English social reality in this book. The issues of sexism and racism inevitably arise; in terms of the latter there is both overt and what Wexford calls ‘apologetic racism’ – defined by one reviewer as the ‘ironic recognition that one has said something inherently open to the charge of racism but can find no way of not saying it’. Themes in the sub-plot echo those of the main story, in particular the question of what people will do out of love for their children. What a woman will do to have a child is also a theme that is explored. ‘People are weird,’ says Burden, and this is true of a number of the characters in this story. But Rendell through Wexford is unwaveringly compassionate, even to those who might not deserve it. ‘We judge people by ourselves, Wexford thought, and by our own beliefs, customs and prejudices.’ His seem based in kindness and empathy, though this is not true of various other of the characters. His reading of The Decline and Fall is an exploration of human behaviour, just as is his everyday observation of those around him. It is no coincidence that Rendell quotes the following passage that he is reading: ‘It is the religion of Zingis [Genghis Khan] that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe, who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy, and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration.’

A minor quibble. As I noted in my review of The Vault, Rendell makes use of ‘teasers’ such as ‘Although they didn’t know it, the laughter was due to stop’, or ‘She turned out to be right’. I’m not sure why she does this, as I don’t think it adds anything. But I can forgive her.

Ruth Rendell doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read more about her here. Her latest book – a crime story but not a Wexford one – called The Girl Next Door, came out this month. Now if I could be a quarter as productive as she is at 84 …..

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