Harriet Waugh

Recent crime novels | 1 February 2003

For the last few years Ruth Rendell has used her Chief Inspector Wexford detective novels to explore social issues that have been much in the papers. This has unfortunately made for unoriginal story lines with obvious villains in an all too familiar terrain.

It is a pleasure therefore to be able to report that The Babes in the Wood (Hutchinson, £16.99) returns to more traditional territory. The novel is set during the perpetual rain that we suffered last year. Kingsmarkham, the Sussex town where Wexford bestrides the police force, is in danger of flooding. The river having broken through its banks is threatening the environs of the town, which includes Wexford’s home. From his sitting-room Wexford can see the creeping tide inching up the garden. His mind is only partially concerned with crime, the rest of it being mightily preoccupied with the ground floor of his home being submerged in water. Then a report comes in that a teenage brother and sister, together with their sitter, are missing. The hysterical mother is convinced that they have drowned while she has been away with her husband for a couple of days’ holiday. This seems unlikely, since all three are excellent swimmers and the water didn’t start to rise dramatically until after they had gone missing.

Wexford suspects that the female, ex-school-teacher sitter has kidnapped or murdered them. But why? The children are bright, the parents ghastly, and the sitter turns out to be a curiously complex, not altogether likeable woman. The mother claims her as her best friend, but is considerably older. All this is excellent stuff and highly enjoyable.

Then, about half way through, there is a development of such a nature that it seemed obvious to me, although not to Wexford and his team, what has happened. From then onwards, the novel loses its impetus, as Wexford gradually works his way towards the reader’s view of the matter.

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