Inspector Wexford Returns
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
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.
Read an Excerpt
On the day Lizzie came back from the dead the police and her family and
neighbors had already begun the search for her body. They worked on the
open countryside between Kingsmarkham and Myringham, combing the hillsides
and beating through the woods. It was April but cold and wet, and a sharp
northeast wind was blowing. Their task was not a pleasant one; no one
laughed or joked and there was little talking.
Lizzie’s stepfather was among the searchers, but her mother was too upset
to leave the house. The evening before, the two of them had appeared on
television to appeal for Lizzie to come home, for her abductor or attacker,
whatever he might be, to release her. Her mother said she was only sixteen,
which was already known, and that she had learning difficulties, which was
not. Her stepfather was a lot younger than her mother, perhaps ten years,
and looked very young. He had long hair and a beard and wore several
earrings, all in the same ear. After the television appearance several
people phoned Kingsmarkham Police Station and opined that Colin Crowne had
murdered his stepdaughter. One said Colin had buried her on the building
site down York Street, a quarter of a mile down the road from where the
Crownes and Lizzie lived on the Muriel Campden Estate. Another told
Detective Sergeant Vine that she had heard Colin Crowne threaten to kill
Lizzie “because she was as thick as two planks.”
“Those folks as go on telly to talk about their missing kids,” said a
caller who refused to give her name, “they’re always the guilty ones. It’s
always the dad. I’ve seen it time and time again. If you don’t know that,
you’ve no business being in the police.”
Chief Inspector Wexford thought she was dead. Not because of what the
anonymous caller said, but because all the evidence pointed that way.
Lizzie had no boyfriend, she was not at all precocious, she had a low IQ
and was rather slow and timid. Three evenings before, she had gone with
some friends on the bus to the cinema in Myringham, but at the end of the
film the other two girls had left her to come home alone. They had asked
her to come clubbing with them but Lizzie had said her mother would be
worried—the friends thought Lizzie herself was worried at the idea—and they
left her at the bus stop. It was just before eight-thirty and getting dark.
She should have been home in Kingsmarkham by nine-fifteen, but she didn’t
come home at all. At midnight her mother had phoned the police.
If she had been, well, a different sort of girl, Wexford wouldn’t have paid
so much attention. If she had been more like her friends. He hesitated
about the phrase he used even in his own mind, for he liked to keep to his
personal brand of political correctness in his thoughts as well as his
speech. Not to be absurd about it, not to use ridiculous expressions like
intellectually challenged, but not to be insensitive either and call a girl
such as Lizzie Cromwell mentally handicapped or retarded. Besides, she
wasn’t either of those things, she could read and write, more or less, she
had a certain measure of independence and went about on her own. In
daylight, at any rate. But she wasn’t fit just the same to be left alone
after dark on a lonely road. Come to that, what girl was?
So he thought she was dead. Murdered by someone. What he had seen of Colin
Crowne he hadn’t much liked, but he had no reason to suspect him of killing
his stepdaughter. True, some years before he married Debbie Cromwell,
Crowne had been convicted of assault on a man outside a pub, and he had
another conviction for taking and driving away—in other words, stealing—a
car. But what did all that amount to? Not much. It was more likely that
someone had stopped and offered Lizzie a lift.
“Would she accept a lift from a stranger?” Vine had asked Debbie Crowne.
“Sometimes it’s hard to make her like understand things,” Lizzie’s mother
had said. “She’ll sort of say yes and no and smile—she smiles a lot, she’s
a happy kid—but you don’t know if it’s like sunk in. Do you, Col?”
“I’ve told her never talk to strangers,” said Colin Crowne. “I’ve told her
till I’m blue in the face, but what do I get? A smile and a nod and another
smile, then she’ll just say something else, something loony, like the sun’s
shining or what’s for tea.”
“Not loony, Col,” said the mother, obviously hurt.
“You know what I mean.”
So when she had been gone three nights and it was the morning of the third
day, Colin Crowne and the neighbors on either side of the Crownes on the
Muriel Campden Estate started searching for Lizzie. Wexford had already
talked to her friends and the driver of the bus she should have been on but
hadn’t been on, and Inspector Burden and Sergeant Vine had talked to dozens
of motorists who used that road daily around about that time. When the rain
became torrential, which happened at about four in the afternoon, they
called off the search for that day, but they were set to begin again at
first light. Taking DC Lynn Fancourt with him, Wexford went over to Puck
Road for another talk with Colin and Debbie Crowne.
When it was built in the sixties, on an open space that would now be called
a “green field area,” between the top of York Street and the western side
of Glebe Road, the three streets and block of flats on a green in the midst
of them, it had been called the York Estate. The then chairman of the
housing committee, who had done A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his school
certificate and was proud of the knowledge thus gained, named the streets
after characters in that comedy, Oberon, Titania, and Puck.