Ruth Rendell's 20th Inspector Wexford novel is a real page turner, filled with twists and turns designed to keep a reader guessing.
The only problem is those aren't the kinds of things we turn to Ruth Rendell for. Those things are best left to her inferiors, such as Dan Brown.
What Rendell gives us like no other living crime writer is acute psychological portraits and elegant prose style. The latter is still evident in ``End in Tears," but the characters are perhaps her least credible.
Rendell is a master of drawing parallels between the private life of Wexford, who's getting along in years, and the plot developments within the murder investigation. Here, the common link is the maternal instinct.
Wexford's daughter Sylvia is having her former husband's baby, which she then intends to hand over to him and his new girlfriend. Meanwhile, two young women have been murdered, one who was pregnant and the other leaving a child that a surly stepmother will have to raise.
At the same time, a young inspector, Hannah Goldsmith, is skeptical of anything smacking of sexism -- like the term ``maternal instinct" -- and thinks that the sooner the old patriarchal order is overturned, the better we'll all be.
Wexford, of course, always gets his man -- er, person -- which makes you wonder why the local newspaper is always on about his inadequacies. It turns out that he's as good a literary critic as he is a homicide investigator. Goldsmith is ``politically correct to a degree Wexford thought ridiculous."
Right you are, Chief Inspector. Goldsmith is that rare Rendell character, a stick figure, there to test multicultural waters (her new beau is an Englishman of East Asian origin) and to show that ideologues -- cultural as well as political -- shouldn't be so sure of themselves.
Wexford's daughter isn't much more believable. Would Sylvia really provide her ex with such a generous gift as her own child? Would the new girlfriend really be such a harridan about how Sylvia cares for herself during the pregnancy?
Rendell takes a dim view of such women, although in other matters she's not above some political correctness of her own, such as , ``Global warming had compelled the management of the Olive and Dove Hotel to install air conditioning." She's right about climate change, but she usually finds more graceful ways of expressing her liberal views.
But if we can't read ``End in Tears" for the usual Rendellian gifts, at least it's still a good mystery and Wexford is in his usual fine fettle. He isn't always one step ahead of the reader, but he is when it counts -- toward the end.
And once he unravels the murders, other thematic issues fall into place, particularly as they relate to disruptions in how families are put together and taken apart in the 21st century.
The season is right for a page-turner. When the prolific writer returns, here's hoping she's ready to tackle more complex characters.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.