Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inspector Wexford is one of my favorite fictional detectives (right up there with Kurt Wallander and Precious Ramotswe), so I was thrilled to see that there is a new Ruth Rendell novel out.  I was under the impression that she was going to "retire" Reg Wexford, but although he is retired from the police force, he is by no means retired with investigating crime as we see in the book No Man's Nightingale.

The book opens with the discovery of the murder of vicar Sarah Hussain.  Sarah and her 17 year old daughter Clarissa lived in the vicarage, but Sarah didn't have many close friends.  Therefore, it's rather puzzling as to who could dislike her enough to want to strangle her.  Detective Superintendent Mike Burden, formerly Wexford's subordinate, is now in charge of the case.

Since retiring, Wexford has spent a lot of time reading, and when we catch up to him in this book, he's still at it.  He's in the middle of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," but it's not easy to read when you've got a chatty housekeeper, and the Wexfords certainly have that.  Maxine Sams never stops talking while she works, and so Wexford tries to avoid her as much as possible.  Still, her chattiness does occasionally come in handy, such as when she describes the scene when she found Rev. Hussain murdered.  Maxine is most talkative about her own family, including her son Jason and his baby daughter Isabella.

Jason's landlord, Jeremy Legg, is a shiftless layabout who is always looking for ways to make a quick buck without actually having to do any work.  He is separated from his former partner, with whom he rented a flat.  He was able to find a new girlfriend and move in with her, so in the absence of his old girlfriend (who has moved abroad with her new partner), he is renting out his former residence to Jason and his family.  Things are going well until the girlfriend announces she's coming home and plans to move back in to the flat.  Jeremy panics, since the girlfriend doesn't know he's been renting the place out.  Luckily, he's able to convince his new girlfriend to help him buy a new flat that he then convinces Jason to move into.

Wexford, somewhat at a loose end, is thrilled to be kept up-to-date on the murder investigation and to occasionally go out and question witnesses.  Because of his many years of experience, he is able to put everyone at ease and most people have no hesitation in speaking to him.  As in previous years, however, Mike Burden fixes on a suspect and refuses to consider any alternative explanations for the crime -- no matter how weak his evidence seems to be.

At the same time, Clarissa Hussain is nearing her 18th birthday, a milestone which her mother promised to celebrate by revealing to Clarissa who her father was.  Sarah had been married, but her husband died several years before Clarissa was born.  Sarah's one close friend reveals a possible explanation for Clarissa's conception, but Wexford isn't entirely convinced that is the whole story.  Since a new vicar is going to take Sarah's job, Clarissa has to move out of the vicarage.  Luckily, Wexford's prickly older daughter Sylvia has a spare room for rent.  She soon wonders about this arrangement when her son Robin falls in love with Clarissa.

Will Wexford find out the truth about Clarissa's father? Will he be able to solve the murder?  And are the two things related?  Will the cleaner Maxine ever shut up so that Wexford can finish his book in peace?  And will Burden ever take off his blinders and see that, yet once again, Wexford has solved the case?  These questions are all answered by the end of the book.

I enjoyed visiting Wexford's world again, as always, but I did have some problems with this book.  There were many, many occasions when there were inexplicably abrupt transitions.  Wexford would be speaking with someone in person, and in the middle of a paragraph he would suddenly be at home or calling them on the phone at a later time.  Also, the book seemed to end rather abruptly (even though most of the loose ends had been tied up by that time).  I turned the page, expecting another chapter, but was surprised to find that was the end of the story.  Still, I doubt we've seen the last of Chief Inspector Wexford (retired), and that's always a good thing in my book!

Final verdict for No Man's Nightengale:  Three Gherkins, for being a welcome, if somewhat unsatisfying, visit with an old literary friend

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