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A quiet English town, two murders, and Inspector Wexford

By Ed Siegel
September 29, 2008
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Not in the Flesh
By Ruth Rendell
Crown, 304 pp., $25.95

It has become something of a cliche - the quiet English town in which all kinds of lethal goings-on occur. So how do Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford mysteries rise so gracefully above those of her peers?

The elegance of the writing is a major factor. It's always a pleasure to put oneself in the hands of someone whose command of the language is so graceful and whose unwillingness to succumb to sentimentality so uncompromising.

And then there's Wexford, himself, not as imposing a figure on the literary landscape as his fellow inspectors Dalgliesh and Morse, but one I'd rather share a pint with in good old Kingsmarkham. Except that his doctor has limited him to one glass of red wine a day now, symbolic of the way Rendell has let him age along with the rest of us.

Let's hope the claret works. The latest in the series, "Not in the Flesh," shows there's a lot of life left in both the detective and the writer despite - maybe even because of - their dyspeptic attitudes toward life in the 21st century.

Not that Rendell is always on target when she takes aim. The latest addition to Wexford's staff, Hannah Goldsmith, is too much of a PC stick figure, though fortunately she's not as central to the new novel as she was to the last Wexford, "End in Tears."

It's Wexford, at any rate, whom we want front and center, as he is here. It's his reactions to what goes on behind those closed doors that makes the series stand out. Increasingly there's an air of sadness to those reactions. The influx of Somali refugees to Kingsmarkham has raised the level of racism, which offends the inspector's liberalism, but even more frustrating is his shock and seeming inability to do anything about the genital mutilation that he's told is happening within the Somali community.

And then there are the murders, two bodies found fairly early in the story, whose identities remain a mystery for much of the book, making this less a whodunit than a whodunnit-to-whom-where-when-and-why. Wexford's suspects are the kind of upper class snobs Rendell has always enjoyed trashing, here with a kind of Dickensian name-calling - Grimble and Runge are two of the possible murderers.

But it's the Tredown "family" who are particularly fascinating - a dying writer living with two wives, current and former. They're as nasty as the other folks, almost comically so, but Rendell takes such relish in detailing the inconvenient truths of all these lives that you don't mind their one-dimensionality.

Wexford, for one thing, has enough dimensions for the lot of them and with all that's on his plate - the political correctness, genital mutilation, his distaste for the Internet, unidentified bodies, his diet, and a fair amount of violence thrown his way - you wonder if he's going to make it to another adventure. Not the least of his problems is Hannah getting the staff to call him "Guv" instead of "Sir." Or that he has to slog his way through Tredown's religious adventure novels.

But given the dexterity with which he handles it all, and Rendell's undiminished gracefulness in telling his stories, all we can say is drink that claret, sir, drink up. Kingsmarkham needs you. We need you.

Ed Siegel is a freelance writer. He can be reached at esiegel122@ comcast.net.

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