(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The novels by which Ruth Rendell is best known are the Inspector Wexford series. These are set in the fictional town of Kingsmarkham, in the south of England. Wexford lives with his wife, Dora, and has two grown-up daughters. The elder of the daughters, Sylvia, along with her two daughters, moves back home after separating from her husband. Inspector Wexford is assisted by Michael Burden. Over the course of the series, both men earn promotions. The series develops the characters of the two men and their relationship with each other. At times, their families become involved in the plots.

One of the features of all Ruth Rendell’s fiction is the use of parallel plots. At first, the plots appear unrelated, but gradually similarities emerge, and at certain crucial points, the plots actually cross. Sometimes both plots involve murder, but sometimes one plot centers on personal happenings in the lives of the two police officers in the Wexford series or other happenings in the victim’s family. There is a marked degree of literary allusion, too, and sometimes the parallelism comes from literature. For this, Wexford needs to be a well-read man, which he is.

Later Wexford novels take on more social and political issues, overlaying the psychological and personal ones. Rendell deals with racism (Simisola, 1994), feminism (An Unkindness of Ravens, 1985), and ecological issues (Road Rage, 1997), though never taking a strong political stance in any of her novels. In fact, Rendell has been labeled antifeminist by some critics. Wexford himself goes through changes, suffering a heart attack, disillusionment, and an attempted seduction. His own experiences make him more understanding of the perpetrators’ motives.

In the suspense novels, written both as Rendell and as Vine, a somewhat different scenario emerges. The police novels have a sense of order and a return to normality at their conclusions; the suspense novels have no such normative presence. Instead, perfectly normal people on the outside commit crimes of great passion and violence, often out of sexual obsessions. The novels develop an understanding of why they committed such apparently out-of-character crimes. The point of view varies, there being no central organizing police consciousness: Sometimes it is of the perpetrator, sometimes objective, sometimes multiple. Rendell is willing to leave many of her novels open-ended; others have a circular form.

From Doon with Death

From Doon with Death (1964) was the first of Rendell’s novels to be published and the first of more than twenty Inspector...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)