[The following contains mild plot spoilers.]
Ruth Rendell has privileged the quantity over the quality of her fiction to a degree perhaps unique in a writer of her calibre. She rarely writes badly, but one imagines that if her career had observed a different policy to that of the Stakhanovite production of middlebrow fiction, then she could have crafted some almighty twisted masterpiece from all of the maddest and weirdest episodes in her novels. Perhaps, however, her lunacy is best smothered in the tonic of cosy, easygoing middling fiction. Like Herge’s Marlinspike or Wodehouse’s Blandings, one repeatedly returns to Rendell’s Kingsmarkham – the Sussex town policed by Wexford – not because its streets are reassuringly familiar or because its characters seem like old friends, but because the machinery of Rendell’s fiction performs with crude but unfailing efficiency.
The craftsmanship of Rendell’s detective plots – the delivery of suspense and surprises – often seems uncomfortably formulaic, but there nevertheless remains something almost hypnotic to her narratives. The success of a novel may be best judged by how quickly it takes to read it (I find that To Kill a Mockingbird takes two days, whilst a novel by Dickens may take the winter), and one may easily demolish The Babes in the Wood (2002) in an afternoon. Yet one may be fearful of going too quickly – of missing details or impairing an enjoyment of the novel – which may lead to a subsequent fear that the novel is being read in ludicrously rationed portions – as if one is trying to savour the taste of fast food. The speed with which the Babes may be read contrasts awkwardly with Wexford’s own singularly leisurely work pace: he seems to put in about four hours a day.
The premise of the Wexford novels is that Chief Inspector Wexford is kind, considerate, principled, and assisted by a small band of similarly pleasant allies; whilst the public whom he polices are fundamentally ghastly. The citizens of Kingsmarkham are either inhumanly stupid or obnoxious, and the nastiness of those encountered during a Wexford investigation is often of a quintessentially English and petty-bourgeois variety. The Babes is concerned with the Dade family: the husband is “awesomely rude,” the wife is so hysterical that she is unable to stop crying, one mother in law is hopelessly depleted and old-fashioned whilst the other is a libertarian who smokes marijuana with her grandchildren in order to further torment their frantic mother. Wexford repeatedly visits the Dades during his investigation, and we may vaguely fear that he will wander off and leave us to spend a night by ourselves in this house of horrors. We may presume that the Babes is realist fiction due to its grim portrayals of British domesticity, but it is actually psychological horror, or even a kind of science fiction. The Dades demonstrate a fierce insect intelligence, which allows them to mechanical and indifferently hurt each another. The family is merely an arbitrary social system within which these mutants happen to have found themselves, and it does little to arrest their inevitable degeneration.
Wexford always reflects on what he has witnessed, but he never seems to arrive at any sort of conclusion, and the nearest which he achieves in this direction is all rather hopeless: “Isn’t it likely that they [the parents of missing children] depend on the other one in ways they have never had to before? And that other, who has always seemed strong or comforting or optimistic, suddenly shows they’re none of these things. They’re just as weak and helpless as the other one and that seems to show they’ve been living for years under an illusion.” And that’s that. Yet despite such nihilistic epiphanies, the police investigation in the Babes, as in all of the Wexford novels, initially fails to appreciate the depravity of those concerned (in this case, of both the murderer and of the victim).
Even the novel’s comic moments are black. Peter Buxton discovers what he believes to be a body in the grounds of his Sussex weekend retreat, but his appalling wife will not let him contact the police because she does not wish to solicit the disruption and inconvenience of a police investigation. For weeks, the body rots undisturbed in the Buxtons’ grounds. The husband is tormented by his memory of the body’s smell, and he eventually and unsuccessfully attempts to notify the police without his wife‘s knowledge. The pair subsequently divorce. The story of the Buxtons is only amusing due to the acidity with which Rendell portrays them. Light relief also occurs when Wexford finds himself trapped in his office with a maniac, but this madwoman seems only to have marginally less control than everybody else whom he encounters in his investigation. Perhaps hope may be glimpsed in the account of the “dancing floor”: a spot in the woods of the Buxtons’ grounds where the old Sussex villagers would revel away Midsummer. Or perhaps this nostalgia for community is only the product of a despair at the barbarity of modern Kingsmarkham.
Wexford is a gentle Gulliver plodding about over Kingsmarkham’s Lilliput. Old Oedipal drums are surely pounding in his hatred of his daughter’s lovers – none of whom are satisfactory because, presumably, they do not resemble him – and if he shared the same nature as the rest of Kingsmarkham, then perhaps this compulsive hatred would similarly drive him to murder. But Wexford has a superior intelligence to the rest of Kingsmarkham, and he concludes that he should not get involved with his daughters’ disastrous relationships. He assumes that if he considers the events of the investigation for long enough, then its solution will eventually come to him. Months duly pass.
On television, Wexford was played by George Baker, and it seemed that a hearty, blunt, and rather splendid Sussex farmer glowed beneath his policeman exterior. Baker-Wexford’s crafty peasant wits were set against cold-hearted bourgeois villains, of whom none shared his old world decency and farmer’s accent. One could almost imagine Baker -Wexford presiding over a harvest fair with a tankard of cider. Yet in the books, we are made to feel condescending towards Wexford. There is something faintly sad to his triumph at the end of the novel, when he reveals the mystery’s solution to a rather bored and impatient Burden in the back room of the local pub. Although the investigation has involved a whole cast of characters, it is Wexford’s obsession alone, and nobody else seems to care about its solution. Burden was on holiday in Spain during the climax of the investigation, and Wexford’s boss “grumbles” when informed of its unspectacular conclusion. Perhaps the fact that only we, the reader, are following the ins and outs of Wexford’s investigation, demonstrates that although he seems at peace with the world, he is essentially apart from it and its ghastliness.