(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ruth Rendell has long been known as a doyenne of the mystery genre, and this novel will not detract from her reputation. She has two varieties of mystery novel—stories of psychological obsession, and more traditional murder mysteries, which feature Inspector Wexford. Rendell also writes stories of twisted psyches under the name of Barbara Vine; the Vine novels are dominated by a strong sense of place. Harm Done is the nineteenth novel in this prolific mystery writer’s Inspector Wexford series.

Rendell has won many awards, including three Edgar Awards, four Gold Daggers, the Commander of the British Empire, and the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award. Moreover, she has been made a member of the House of Lords and is a working peer with the title Baroness Rendell. Her particular skill has always been the evocation of subtleties of deviance: how people develop into sociopaths, the psychology of the outsider. She is also very adept in her use of details to create a sense of place, whether it is a brooding Italian villa, as in a Barbara Vine novel, or the village of Kingsmarkham, where Reg Wexford is chief inspector.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of the Wexford novel is the impression it gives of the British village and its inhabitants—the out-of-work husbands, sullen and swaggering as they live off wives or the dole; the petty bullies; the gossipy shopkeepers; the unattractive women starved for romance. She is particularly good at representing parents—fathers who try to exert total control over the family and cowed, evasive mothers who lack the strength and ability to comfort their troubled children. There are few healthy relationships in a Rendell novel, either within social expectations (mother, father, and children in their two-up, two-down little home) or outside society’s norms.

This story begins with the abduction and return of Lizzie Cromwell, a teenager whose intellectual capacity is limited and who is also unwilling to explain exactly what happened. Other events occupy Inspector Wexford’s busy life: A pedophile who is also a child-killer has been released, and the neighborhood to which he will return does not want him. Meanwhile, Wexford is also trying to get closer to his daughter Sylvia, whose own marriage is faltering while she is working as a volunteer answering the telephone at a refuge for battered women called “The Hide.” Sylvia’s militant feminism has always grated on his nerves.

In Harm Done, the focus on unhealthy marital relationships and their effects on children is unique. Sylvia shakes some of Wexford’s preconceptions about spouse abuse, and the reader’s as well. The characters from “The Hide” show the gamut of reactions to battering, and it becomes clear that the problem has many levels, many manifestations, and many possible approaches to solution.

Series novels, when good, always show the progress of the lives of the recurrent characters, having the sustained interest in a family drama to lure the reader into the next novel. Harm Done is no exception. Sheila, the favored daughter, is barely mentioned in this book, while Sylvia, who has appeared as a kind of irritation in others—Wexford, try as he will, simply cannot accept her opinionated positions and jargon-ridden chat—here becomes more real and sympathetic, to Wexford as well as the reader. Dora, Wexford’s cozy and domestic wife, recedes into the background also; she was a more active part in the last Wexford story,Road Rage (1997).

The neighborhood gears up for battle. A second kidnapping occurs, similar to the first; again the girl is returned, and is either not willing or not able to tell exactly what happened, except to describe vaguely a couple, Vicki and Jerry. The daughter of a wealthy couple, Stephen and Fay Devenish, is abducted, and in interviewing this couple Wexford can see that their relationship is not a happy one—Stephen is a batterer, and Fay fits the psychological profile of the battered woman, as Wexford’s daughter Sylvia defines it.

There are two problems, then: the kidnappings and the rising tide of violence caused by the presence of the pedophile in the neighborhood. Neighborhood toughs, especially out-of-work men who already feel ashamed because they cannot support their families, are quick to find a scapegoat. The result of the neighborhood anger...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)