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Wexford's last case

By Michael Sims
Monday, October 26, 2009

THE MONSTER IN THE BOX

By Ruth Rendell

Scribner.

287 pp. $26

One of the best-written detective series in the genre's history is ending. With "The Monster in the Box," Ruth Rendell says farewell to Reginald Wexford, her popular chief inspector of Kingsmarkham, a small Sussex town south of London. "I don't want to do any more Wexfords," she told the Telegraph this spring. "I have other interests now."

Rendell turned 79 this year. Her tone in the 22nd Wexford novel is elegiac, as she looks back over his career and, implicitly, her own. Author and character debuted in 1964 in "From Doon With Death." Ever since, she has been misleading readers and critiquing social change in England. She writes sly, literate prose and spins intricate plots; several Wexfords stand among the finest detective stories ever written, especially "A Sleeping Life," "Simisola" and "Harm Done." Rendell has also published two dozen non-series crime novels and more than a dozen others under the name Barbara Vine. Her list of honors is longer than most authors' bibliographies.

Because the Wexford series stars police officers, it has been described inaccurately as a "police procedural," but Rendell admits she knows little about law enforcement. "I've never been in a police station," she confessed in a 1996 interview. "I just make it up." Wexford is a cop for the same reason that Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski is a private eye: Such a premise allows an author to peek into many lives, observe, ask questions and move on. And unlike private eyes, cops have the official power to intervene, whether as nemesis or rescuing knight. Often Wexford plays both roles.

Although in her series Rendell has explored every social stratum and issues from ecology to racism to domestic violence, she has really created only two major characters: the inspector himself and his dapper, prudish right-hand man, Mike Burden. Over the years, Burden changes more than Wexford does, as his first wife dies and he marries a more easygoing, progressive woman who lures Burden out of his judgmental conservatism. Wexford's own wife, Dora, is always reliably in the background, but only in the 1997 novel "Road Rage" is she featured.

In case you were disappointed with the last couple of Wexford books (the weak "End in Tears" and the merely adequate "Not in the Flesh"), I'm pleased to report that "Monster" brings both Rendell and Wexford back in strong form. Invariably, whenever I predicted the plot would go in a certain direction, I was wrong. For the first time in the series, we glimpse Wexford's youth, his days as a rookie cop, his eager but uncertain approach to his first cases, the comedy of his early dating, even his initial meeting with Dora. These flashbacks appear not apart from the crime trail but within its context. Throughout his career, we learn, Wexford has been distantly shadowed by the monster of the title: Eric Targo, a man who, Wexford is certain, committed at least two murders without attracting suspicion from anyone other than Wexford himself. But the rookie Wexford had no real evidence; powerless, he watched both investigations go astray. Now Targo is back, stalking Wexford as if taunting him.

The long-distance perspective in this final book, which takes place in the late 1990s, highlights an issue that develops in any series over time: the question of the protagonist's age. In most of the series, Rendell doesn't state Wexford's age -- at his debut, he was specifically 52 -- but he has definitely grown older, struggling with weight gain, high blood pressure and other bodily ills.

Always something of a grouch -- "precious and fussy," one of his colleagues thinks -- he is now "preoccupied," Rendell writes, with "times long past." He recalls everything from restrictions considered necessary for watching the first TVs to interrogation rooms before the smoking ban, and he complains about the "general mealymouthed PC-ness" that dominates public lives nowadays.

Rendell also brings back the agonizingly self-conscious and politically correct detective Hannah Goldsmith, who wrestles with the threat of a Muslim girl being forced into marriage. This subplot connects with others. Ultimately, everything weaves together in Rendell's imaginary town, but more so than ever in "The Monster in the Box." We close the book on Inspector Wexford with the knowledge that he has had an illustrious career. And we accept this conclusion because at any time we can return to Kingsmarkham to explore the darker side of humanity with him as our reassuring and humane guide.

Sims's recent books include "The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime." He is currently writing a book about E.B. White.

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