Ruth Rendell's long, varied career has been a constant source of astonishment and pleasure. Since the appearance of her first novel, From Doon with Death in 1964, she has published nearly 50 books, most of which fall into three general categories. There are the Inspector Wexford novels, a long-running series of police procedurals set in the fictional Sussex village of Kingsmarkham. There are the psychological thrillers, such as The Bridesmaid, The Crocodile Bird, and Live Flesh, many of which contain eerily precise renderings of violent, abnormal mental states. Finally, there are the Barbara Vine novels, subtle, sometimes leisurely narratives that straddle the imaginary boundary between mainstream and genre fiction.
Rendell's latest, Harm Done, is a Wexford novel, the first since 1997's Road Rage and one of the longest, most ambitious entries in the series. In this one, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford is confronted with an assortment of investigations that intersect -- or appear to intersect -- at a number of points. For reasons that will eventually become obvious, Wexford later comes to think of this intertwining series of occurrences as the Children's Crusade.
Harm Done opens with the disappearance of a not-quite-retarded 16-year-old named Lizzie Cromwell. Three days after her abduction, Lizzie returns home, obviously unharmed but unable -- or unwilling -- to explain her absence. (She is also, as Wexford quickly learns, pregnant, a circumstance that may or may not be related to her disappearance.) One week later, a college student named Rachel Holmes -- older, brighter, more aggressive than Lizzie -- vanishes in a similar fashion. She, too, returns within three days and is equally unwilling to cooperate with local investigators. Shortly afterward, the three-year-old daughter of a wealthy airline executive also disappears, stolen from her bedroom in the small hours of the morning. This particular victim -- Sanchia Devenish -- does not immediately return, and the mystery of her whereabouts provides this complex novel with its dramatic -- and thematic -- center.
Wexford's life -- and village life in general -- is further complicated by two unrelated elements. One concerns the arrival of a once-notorious pedophile -- Thomas Orbe -- who has just been discharged from prison and has taken up residence in Kingsmarkham. When the news of Sanchia Devenish's abduction is made public, Orbe becomes the focal point of the community's outrage, outrage that has violent, ultimately tragic consequences. The second element concerns the presence in Kingsmarkham of a controversial haven for battered women called The Hide. Wexford's daughter Sylvia, a social worker with marital problems of her own, works as a volunteer at The Hide. Through her, Rendell provides us with a window on the grim realities of women victimized by violent, endlessly self-justifying husbands.
In the end, Sylvia's familiarity with the symptoms of marital abuse provides Wexford with the key to Sanchia's disappearance. Studying a group portrait of the Devenish family -- handsome, self-confident husband; pale, self-deprecating wife; blank, expressionless children -- Sylvia understands immediately that Stephen Devenish -- husband, father, extraordinarily successful businessman -- is a wife-beater. Once the nature of life in the Devenish family is made clear to Wexford, he finds his way to the heart of the novel's central mystery and sets in motion a series of events that ends, inevitably, in murder.
Rendell is at the top of her game in this one, skillfully manipulating a large cast of characters and a multitude of subplots to produce a wide-ranging, deeply felt meditation on the infinitely vulnerable institution of the family. The numerous families that populate this novel are threatened, and sometimes destroyed, by the forces of poverty, insanity, greed, ignorance, and, most centrally, violence. Rendell's portraits of battered and beleaguered women, her anger over the lingering belief that domestic violence is somehow "acceptable," and her gradual revelation of the casual brutality of life in the Devenish household combine to give this gritty, aptly titled novel an immediacy, a sense of moral and emotional urgency, that lift it well above the level of more traditional detective stories and onto the level of literature.
During the course of her career, Rendell has won virtually every award that the mystery community can bestow: multiple Edgar awards, multiple Gold Daggers, Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Mystery Writers of America and the Crime Writers Association of England. Reading her latest, it's not hard to understand why. Harm Done is a well-constructed, deeply affecting novel. It offers further evidence -- as if further evidence were needed -- that its author is one of the preeminent figures of 20th-century crime fiction.