Old detectives rarely die — or age, for that matter: Poirot is forever 60, Sherlock Holmes 50, P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh a handsome 38 or so.
Old detectives rarely die — or age, for that matter: Poirot is forever 60, Sherlock Holmes 50, P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh a handsome 38 or so. But Rendell’s George Wexford is ageing all right, and it shows. He is all nostalgia and reminiscence and remarking on things that are not getting better in the latest novel set on his old patch, the Suffolk market town of Kingsmarkham.
That has certainly changed. It has expanded, become less genteel and sleepy — though plenty of crime happens and much murder, as ever in these dear old places to which P. D. James once gave the perfect collective name of Mayhem Parva. And Kingsmarkham now has a significant Muslim population, as a rather awkward bow to political correctness. Ruth Rendell seems uneasy about this, not out of any prejudice — she is a Labour peeress, after all — but because she cannot quite make up her mind how they should be viewed by her characters, and ends up uneasily with everyone apologising for everyone else.
But although the story of a clever but rebellious runaway Muslim girl is a substantial subplot, the novel is about a man Wexford has always believed committed not one but several murders, the deeply unpleasant, small, stocky, hard-faced Eric Targo. He is as good a villain as Wexford ever tried to pin down, a man who loves animals more than people — he is not only a dog-lover, and never seen without one, he keeps snakes and a lion.
Targo had a disfiguring naevus covering the whole of his neck, over which he always wore a scarf in the days when Wexford spotted him exercising his dog in the street shortly after a woman was found strangled in a nearby house. Targo looked straight at Wexford, mocking, challenging, defying, and at that moment Wexford marked him out. When others were strangled, he knew in his heart Targo was the murderer but could never prove it. Now, years later, Targo re-appears, minus the disfigurement, which he has had removed, and the scarf. He stalked Wexford once, and he looks set to do so again. Is this a gauntlet thrown down before the ageing but stubborn man who has now to announce himself as from not Kingsmarkham CID but ‘Kingsmarkham Crime Management.’
The first chapters of the novel have Wexford telling the story of Targo and the murder he is sure he committed all those years ago, to a patient but bored colleague. This would be fine and I am uncertain why Ruth Rendell, as practised and confident a crime writer as ever was, should seem to have lost her nerve somewhat. She has Wexford constantly refer to incidents, places, details of everyday life from 30 plus years earlier with ‘but things are not like that now/it was different then/this was in the days before….’ Most readers will fall into the period without being reminded that someone had to run for a phone box because there were no mobiles then.
The story of the hauntingly nasty Targo interweaves with that of the Muslim families, bringing in social workers and police who are PC personified, and nicely pointing up the Muslim families’ cynicism at being patronised and singled out for special treatment when they would prefer simply to be taken for granted in the same was as every other citizen in Kingsmarkham.
I wonder if George Wexford will now retire, or even … No. No. No!
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 10, 2009Tags: Crime, Fiction