Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford series started in 1964 and is ongoing to this day with 23 books at present, the last one having been published just last year. I’ve been reading this series for may years now but only recently did I find some of the books I was missing so I decided to start from the beginning all over again. It’s not a requirement to read them in order because each is a stand-alone mystery novel, but the characters do evolve and there is the occasional mention of a previous case on some of the books. I decided to read them again because i don’t remember many of them anymore and also because, to me, the best thing about the books is the description of the two main characters – Wexford and Burden. They are flawed and not always nice but I can’t help liking them and admire their dedication to job and family.
Because it is an on-going series and the books I remember best are her latest, it was a shock to read those earlier novels again. The social mindset about women – response to a suspect washing his clothes: ‘you washed them? What d’you have a wife for?’ or how a young girl feels she’s not good enough to marry because her father was a murderer – freaked me out at times. The value of money has also changed so much that it was hard to understand why it was such a big deal for someone to have 100 pounds in their wallet. Not until you realize the average worker made about 20 pounds a week.
Ruth Rendell is a British mystery writer so there is some common ground with other authors in the genre but she has some very unique characteristics as well. The similarities are obvious: the stories are set in a fairly small town and there’s the class element, but, as seen in the previous paragraph, for books written by a woman before or around 1970, it’s quite odd and refreshing to find out the killer is actually a jilted lesbian or a sexual sadist with a fetish for cutting up his bed partners rather than the typical jealous husband or the vicar. That’s what Ruth Rendell is so good at: the shock value. Also, if there’s a romantic story somewhere in the book you KNOW it’s going to end badly. It’s a sure thing. And even though I like romantic novels and like happy endings, Rendell’s unhappy endings are done in such a way that you feel it really couldn’t work out any other way.
Another great thing about these books is that Ruth Rendell is obviously a smart and well educated woman and her books are filled with poetry quotes and unusual words so you can actually expand your vocabulary as you’re enjoying your murder mystery 🙂
The only negative note I’ve made is that there seem to be way too many observations on the weather, a British obsession, that sometimes goes on for pages. The point of these descriptions is to set the atmosphere and to give extra insight into the characters but late at night it sometimes makes me doze off a bit.
I’m now on the fifth book – a new one – and have 18 more to go, ending with ‘The Vault’ that I have never read. It’s a completely different mindset from the previous books I’ve been reading and it took me a bit to get into it but by now I’m completely immersed in this world and loving it once more.