Written by Ruth Rendell — May 2014 is the 50th anniversary of Ruth Rendell’s debut novel, From Doon with Death. It is being reissued with an introduction by Ian Rankin, who describes her as “probably the greatest living crime writer in the world”. Hopefully, the typographical errors that sneaked into the 2009 re-issue have been cleaned up for this birthday edition.
Rendell is still writing her superior, socially aware police procedurals featuring Reg Wexford, as well as sharply observed, standalone psychological crime novels. The 51st Ruth Rendell novel, The Girl Next Door, will be published in August. And the suspenseful Barbara Vine books – 14 and counting – show another side to the author.
Having been impressed with last year’s Wexford novel, No Man’s Nightingale, reading From Doon With Death felt like time travel. Here were her familiar characters investigating murder in the Sussex market town of Kingsmarkham back in the 60s. Incidentally, Rendell has adjusted Wexford’s timeline: he would now be 102 if his book years matched our own.
As a first novel, From Doon With Death is an impressive achievement that demonstrates a fully formed talent. Rendell is known for sharp observations, sense of place and unique insight into all manner of characters that she creates. And it’s all here in this story about an unassuming housewife whose murder appears to hint at hidden, violent passions in the countryside.
The young Rendell already has the authorial splinter of ice in the heart that enables her to portray tragedy with dispassionate prose. There’s something chilling about the passage describing Margaret Parsons’ body being discovered amidst a herd of cows by a farm worker. She had been reported missing by her husband, whose true crime hobby certainly makes him a person of interest if not a definite suspect.
In fact, it’s poetry that seems to be at the heart of this case, as inscribed volumes belonging to the victim are discovered, including The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, The Poems of Christina Rossetti and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. All are signed with a dedication by a certain ‘Doon’ in 1950 and so suspicion soon falls on an old boyfriend, who is given a rough time by Wexford.
In his debut outing, Chief Inspector Wexford shows none of the avuncular charm that readers have got used to in the series. At one point, he upbraids his deputy, Mike Burden, for offering him a cigarette while they wait to interview a witness in her home. “This is Sussex, not Mexico,” he thunders. When they discuss the potential guilt of Mr Parsons, Wexford makes the outrageous suggestion that any married man has a motive for killing his wife. In fairness to Rendell (and Wexford), there are far more outmoded opinions to be found in other 50-year-old novels. Wexford’s grumpiness is not endearing, though Rendell made him more likeable as the series progressed.
You can certainly appreciate how this novel would have shaken up readers used to the certainties of Golden Age detective fiction. Wexford is not the type of policeman to defer to the posh lawyer Douglas Quadrant, and this crime is certainly a long way from Agatha Christie’s casebook.
From Doon With Death is a little dated, though that’s hardly surprising from an author who’s always been interested in the world as it is. This is the early 60s, so characters mention a new exam called the A-level that’s been introduced and the victim is a 30-year-old, childless housewife – a character that would be impossible to write realistically today, unless she was married to money.
Ruth Rendell’s debut may not shock or surprise readers in the way it did in 1964, but it remains a riveting procedural from an author who’s had an incredible career in crime.
The 50th anniversary edition of From Doon With Death is published as a paperback on 22 May. Read our feature on Ruth Rendell’s career here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars