Written by Ruth Rendell – In 2014 Ruth Rendell will celebrate 50 years as a published author of ingenious procedurals and disquieting psychological crime, and her debut novel, From Doon with Death, will be reissued to mark the anniversary. Baroness Rendell of Babergh remains remarkably prolific at the age of 83, so fans can still read what Reg Wexford’s up to in 2013, half a century after he first appeared as a much younger, grumpier detective.
Rendell has written about racism in the English countryside before and it’s a theme she returns to in No Man’s Nightingale, a title from a poem by George Herbert. The Reverend Sarah Hussain has been strangled in the vicarage, a shocking murder potentially motivated by extreme bigotry in a community divided over the presence of a female vicar of mixed Indian and Irish descent. She was an unmarried mother known for delivering progressive sermons and even wearing traditional Indian dress. But is the reason for her murder racism and religious intolerance or some secret that’s buried in her past?
The embittered, chain-smoking vicar’s warden splutters his distaste for the trendy vicar and her refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer; Wexford has some sympathy for this view, even if he is a liberal atheist. A local gardener, a potential witness with a bad memory, turns out to be an unabashed racist and suspicion turns to an ex-boyfriend from decades earlier as a possible stalker. Then there’s the vicar’s daughter Clarissa, who was expecting to find out the identity of her father in a few months when she turns 18. As the birthday approaches, Wexford fears some revelation will explode in a manner he compares to a Wilkie Collins novel, a typically bookish analogy from a protagonist who spends this novel grappling with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
No Man’s Nightingale is unmistakably a Wexford novel (the 24th to be precise) but Rendell’s detective is now in retirement from his chief inspector’s role in the market town of Kingsmarkham. So she has produced a pensioner procedural as much as an account of a police investigation. Wexford’s adapting to the loss of power, facing moral quandaries over information he unearths and feeling bemused at the modern world. He’s heard of email and texting but prefers to write letters and consult telephone directories. Occasionally, Rendell herself seems a little lost in the 21st century and strains for a contemporary tone with passing references to The X Factor and The Voice.
In previous novel The Vault, Wexford assisted the Metropolitan Police in London on a case that – a nice touch, this – was connected to a crime in a non-Wexford novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes, published 13 years earlier. No Man’s Nightingale is a more familiar Kingsmarkham story, with occasional jaunts to the capital, in which Wexford’s drafted in to provide unpaid help to his snappy-dressing protégé Mike Burden. Despite their political differences, theirs is a companionable partnership that calls to mind Rendell’s friendship with PD James: these legends of crime writing sit on opposite political sides of the House of Lords as life peers yet share a mutual respect and take part in literary events together.
As well as puzzling over the crime, Wexford is frequently trying to dodge his cleaner, Maxine, a woman whose relentless gossiping overflows with malapropisms and affectations. This subtle comedy lightens an engrossing, knotty puzzle of a novel, in which bodies pile up without any certainty how they relate to the original murder. Wexford follows leads, abandons them and – like us – is forced to question everything that’s been revealed. You’re never quite sure who you can trust in No Man’s Nightingale, a realisation that makes for some poignant episodes of self-doubt for the usually amiable Wexford.
Rendell writes with the precision that comes from half a century of masterful, shocking storytelling – and there are moments here that attest to the splinter of ice in her authorial heart. She recently revealed there will be at least one more novel in the series. On this form, there’s every reason to expect her enduring detective’s 25th outing to be another vintage Wexford investigation.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars