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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213

Harm Done is a novel by Ruth Rendell from 1999. The book is actually part of the Inspector Wexford series, and it’s number 18 in that line. When you write your paper on the novel, it will likely focus on Lizzie Cromwell, who turns up after being missing for a...

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Harm Done is a novel by Ruth Rendell from 1999. The book is actually part of the Inspector Wexford series, and it’s number 18 in that line. When you write your paper on the novel, it will likely focus on Lizzie Cromwell, who turns up after being missing for a while in her town.

Lizzie doesn’t remember where she’s been, and Wexford deduces that she had been spending time with her boyfriend. The missing person’s case starts to look more complicated when a three-year-old disappears and there is a public outcry. When writing about or using this part of the book, it helps to focus on how the public gets so angry that they start threatening and even killing people they suspect of being pedophiles.

This puts pressure on Inspector Wexford to figure out the mysteries before events get totally out of hand in the community of the book, called Kingsmarkham. Many of the plots in the book center around women, children, and violence. The second young woman who goes missing after Lizzie has a similar story in that she shows up again having seemingly lost her memory. These connections among the women that Chief Inspector Wexford has to figure out will be a fruitful place to start for your assignment.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1783

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 is a bomb-throwing riot which causes the death of a young policeman, and no one knows exactly how the death was engineered. Wexford, of course, is angered by the senseless killing of the young officer, and tries to follow the chain of cause and effect within the mob’s movement toward riot. This puzzle is less engaging to the reader than to Wexford—the characters involved are unappealing and ignorant, and the murder seems nearly an accident. Nevertheless, many of the same characters are involved in both the kidnapping and the murder. Stephen Devenish had been the employer of some of the working-class characters, and had had bad relationships, for various reasons, with others.

The rich couple’s child is returned. However, before too long Stephen Devenish is found stabbed to death, and various possible motives must be examined. It is possible that it was a vengeful fired worker who stabbed him, or a woman whose brother’s death she blamed on Stephen’s company, or perhaps Jane Andrews, a friend of Fay Devenish who had been forbidden Fay’s company by the possessive Stephen. Also, the weird and mysterious couple Vicki and Jerry, described by their short-time kidnap victims, are proving most difficult to find. There are, in fact, a number of possible suspects, and Wexford must sift through fact and weigh intuitions to find out who is guilty.

At the end, not every element of the interlinked mysteries is explained away. However, the basic story has a satisfying ending, and the characters remain true to form. The problem of spouse abuse is investigated and shown to be a situation without a simple solution. Moreover, the plot itself has a last-page twist that fits the characterizations well and gives the reader an extra jolt.

This novel does not have the same kind of pacing as some of the earlier Wexford novels, which may begin with a murder or the discovery of a body and then move backward through the strands of identifying the body, finding local connections, and tracing motive. In Harm Done, the murder does not occur until late in the novel, and the reader tends to focus more on the sociological elements of murder and abuse. Sylvia’s clear and simple views are contrasted with Wexford’s more complicated assessments, and Wexford actually learns something from his daughter—who also is willing to learn something from him. Rendell’s previous Wexford novel, Road Rage, also had a social issue at its center, in that case ecological concern, and there too an apparently simple problem turns out to have many complexities and contradictions at its heart. Many of the latest murder stories in both England and America tend to have a socially informative function—sometimes providing inside information on an odd hobby or profession, and sometimes giving an interior view of a closed society (such as the shelter for battered women).

Moral ambiguities abound in this novel, and the moral vision is an important part of Rendell’s work. Wexford is put in the position of having to protect the child molester and killer, Thomas Orbe, whom he loathes. The townspeople’s attempt to cleanse their neighborhood of a known danger results not in a cleansing but in a murder. Love causes crimes in the novel, and various attempts to do good misfire. The overall view of human behavior, though, is a moral one. The novel raises and explores issues of accountability: Who is responsible for a crime, the criminal or society? For Wexford, as chief inspector, the answer must finally be that the individual is responsible for his or her acts, despite what society may have done to damage this person; harm done to others is never completely excused by prior harm endured. Moreover, doing harm has more victims beyond the object of the vicious act. In particular, there are the children who are witness to criminal acts, acts which may then predispose them to criminality themselves—for which they will not be excused—or may inoculate them against it. Indeed, this issue begins the book:

The Children’s Crusade, he called it after it was all over, because children played such a big part in it. Yet it was not really about children at all. Not one of them was physically injured, not one of them suffered bodily pain or was even made to cry beyond the common lot of people their age. The mental pain they endured, the emotional traumas and psychological damage—well, those were another thing. Who knows what impression certain sights leave on children? And who can tell what actions those impressions will precipitate? If any. Perhaps, as people once believed, they are character-forming. They make one strong.

Wexford’s daughter Sylvia has a very clearly articulated perspective on the issue of children as witnesses, while Wexford himself is still weighing and wondering, after so many years of experience, about the effect upon children of seeing evil: Is there irrevocable harm done or not? In his attempts to uphold the law, he cannot interrogate his conscience—he is sworn to judge issues and make his arrests on the basis of legality.

Can the political analysis coexist with the highest forms of suspense? In this novel, the reader is led to think about the consequences of the battered woman situation and its effects on the children who are witness to it—the “harm done.” The sober exploration of the issue does not give rise to the uncanny fears of some of the earlier Wexford books, notablyThe Speaker of Mandarin (1983). Analytical thought and sheer terror do not work well together—there is little room for a slow buildup for atmospheric effect in a story of unemployment, ignorance, twisted love, and class prejudice. Nor are the village itself and the surrounding landscape as precisely described as in some of the earlier novels, although fans of Chief Inspector Wexford will surely bring their earlier understanding of his setting to this tale.

Nevertheless, Harm Done is a very satisfying read. With its combination of suspense and discussion, it provides a thoughtful and intriguing puzzle. The plot’s surprising conclusion adds to the moral complexity of the story and leaves the reader wondering about the many layers of guilt and responsibility created by an apparently simple situation.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (September 1, 1999): 8.

Library Journal 124 (September 1, 1999): 237.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (November 21, 1999): 80.

Publishers Weekly 246 (October 18, 1999): 73.

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