Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Not such a scary monster after all

The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell is the 22nd, and reportedly last novel that features her Inspector Wexford character. First introduced in 1964's From Doon With Death, Wexford has had to confront a variety of murder cases and social issues all while dealing with his conflicted feelings about his family (he loves his actress daughter Sheila more than her prickly social worker sister Sylvia).

In his latest outing, Inspector Wexford is confronted by a specter from his past, the evil Eric Targo. Although Wexford has never actually been able to prove it, he has long suspected that Targo has been: a) responsible for a number of murders attributed to others and b) stalking Wexford. Apparently, these suspicions have stretched back to Wexford's very first case on the police force. Why we've just now heard about this Targo character, after 46 years and 22 books, is not explained (other than Wexford telling his side-kick Burden that "no one would believe it"). We readers have been inside Wexford's head for decades, so it's odd he never even thought about Targo in all that time.

Still, on to the story. Wexford has noticed that the previously missing Targo (he'd apparently left the area of Kingsmarkham some time ago) is suddenly back in town. He isn't really doing anything sinister, but Wexford is suspicious. At the same time, Burden's teacher wife Jenny becomes convinced that one of her pupils, the bright and attractive Tamima Rahman, is being forced against her will into an arranged marriage. Although Wexford doesn't want to get involved, a policewoman, Hannah Goldsmith (self appointed "ethnic minorities officer") decides to follow up on the case. This part of the book really stretched the bounds of credulity. Hannah makes repeated visits to the Rahman family and their various relatives, questioning them all about the whereabouts and future plans of the daughter Tamima. Surely it's not accepted behavior for the police to just keep showing up at your house, asking the same questions over and over, when you don't perceive any problem and no crime has been committed? At first, Tamima is said to be away visiting relatives, first in Pakistan and then in London, but later even the family must admit that she seems to be missing. When Eric Targo disappears at the same time, it doesn't take much for Wexford to connect the two events.

I've always really loved the books of Ruth Rendell, but the latest ones have been a bit too heavy handed on the social issues. Her books generally had an unexpected twist at the end that I never saw coming, but the latest ones have been a bit of a let down. I don't want her to stop with the Inspector Wexford series, just to return to her old form of an engrossing "whodunnit" with an unexpected ending. Is that too much to ask?

On another note, good luck to Ms. Rendell who has been "long listed" for the Lost Man Booker Prize for novels that missed out being considered for the prestigious award in 1970 due to a rules change. The novel which has been nominated is A Guilty Thing Surprised, another Inspector Wexford book!

Final Verdict for The Monster in the Box: Two Gherkins, for being a somewhat disappointing outing with old friends

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