The murder victim has a daughter whose bookshelf houses a paperback "Life of Freud," Phyllis Grosskurth's "Havelock Ellis," volumes on incest and child abuse, and works by Fromm and Laing. The detective's actress daughter portrays Beatrice in Shelley's verse tragedy "The Cenci." And you had better not shrug off details of this sort as mere intellectual folderol when you read a Ruth Rendell novel. No shifty-eyed housekeepers poison the sweetmeats here to save inheritances for their illegitimate progeny. Darling Uncle Cecil has not gone dotty on us. In a Rendell mystery the psychopathology of crime is far muckier than that.
Figuring out whodunit amidst the psychosexual chaos of Rendell's crime world requires a nose for the peculiar in human behavior, an ear for the oddly embedded literary allusion and no small dose of Freud. While Rendell retains some of the elements of the tea-and-crumpet school of English murder -- the gossip and the motley cast -- there the resemblance stops. She is always interested in tapping through the polite veneer of civilization to test character in extremis. Her books are peopled, therefore, with deranged toddlers, bedraggled housewives and kinky cultists.
Rendell writes two kinds of crime fiction: creepy, ghoulish tales told from the criminal's point of view, and more conventional puzzle mysteries. Both showcase psychodrama. "An Unkindness of Ravens" is of the second sort, a Chief Inspector Wexford novel, the 13th in a series that also features Wexford's dour younger sidekick, Mike Burden. Set in Sussex, these works grow in psychic intensity as they gradually peel away the layers of vague respectability and grim boredom from middle-class families gone to seed to reveal the repressed perversions beneath.
Rodney Williams, Wexford's neighbor, has disappeared at the beginning of "An Unkindness of Ravens." Left his wife for another woman? He'd been doing that for 16 years. By the time the foot of his corpse pokes out from its shallow grave, it has also emerged that Williams was a bigamist. Meanwhile, his depressed legal wife, spoiled son and militantly feminist daughter barely mourn him, while his much younger, obsessively well-kempt and doll-like illegal wife ("the sort of woman who would get a dying person out of bed to change the sheets before the doctor comes") and 16-year-old submissive, pastel daughter go to pieces. Neither family knows of the other's existence until the patriarch's death, when his predilections for young girls also surface.
Subplots abound. Burden's pregnant 41-year-old wife has hysterics when amniocentesis reveals the child she is carrying to be a girl. There are accusations of father-daughter rape (remember these). A series of nonfatal stabbings of men by women with whom they attempt to become friendly occurs; are these related to the Williams murder? And most of the local high school girls unaccountably belong to a separatist group called ARRIA -- Action for the Radical Reform of Intersexual Attitudes. ARRIA's constitution seems to advocate weapon-toting and violence against men, and its logo -- a woman's head with a raven's body -- keeps materializing on T-shirts worn by all the young girls in town.
Quite dismayingly, the resolution to this mess turns on the neuroses of a lesbian founder of ARRIA named Edwina and, worse, on Freud's seduction theory and on the Freudian idea of folie a deux. The current debate sparked by Jeffrey Masson's book on Freud's alleged abandonment of the seduction theory might shed light on this plot, but most mystery readers don't expect arcane intellectual complications, and Rendell doesn't enforce them. Freud's seduction theory, suffice it to say, represents that moment in his thought when the literal becomes metaphorical; hence, all psychoanalysis rests on it.
In Shelley's play "The Cenci," Count Cenci says of his daughter Beatrice: "What she most abhors/ Shall have a fascination to entrap/ Her loathing will . . . "
Unfortunately, Rendell seems to have taken these lines for her motto in "An Unkindness of Ravens." Her women characters turn to feminism out of self-loathing, and the otherwise carefully structured plot depends upon our acceptance of self-hate as a primal motivating force in women. In this respect, the latest Wexford novel resembles the first, "From Doon With Death," published in 1964. Stereotypes (the tough lesbian tennis coach; the down-at-the-heels housewife whose deadened psyche has been subsumed into the television set; the frilly, helpless flirt) substitute frequently for characterization. The resolution will keep many readers in suspense until the end. Those who know their Shelley and Freud will early on find out the culprits.