Chief Inspector Wexford is a lovely creation. He is also an excellent example of how it is possible to write well-constructed and perceptive detective fiction around a long-running character without worrying too much about the passage of time. Wexford is clearly satisfied with his lot, he has been a Chief Inspector since first making his appearance in 1964 in From Doon With Death, and his sidekick, Inspector Burden, seems to be similarly, well, unburdened. Both are clearly aging very well! Nevertheless, they both seem to have handled the increasing use of technology as an aid to detection, while retaining that awareness of unchanging human nature that marks Ruth Rendell’s writing.
In Not In The Flesh, Wexford and Burden are faced with a body that has been buried for 10 years until unearthed by a truffle-hound. A second body turns up in a cellar not too far away, and the plot then revolves around determining who these people were and are their deaths related. This is all very well done. The characters involved are often not very good people, and it is their human frailty and imperfections that are nicely depicted through the writing. The crimes result from moments of human weakness, but their consequences for the perpetrators and for the families of the dead live on and affect their lives forever.
But running alongside the plot is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) that Ruth Rendell is campaigning against, in the House of Lords and in this book. Wexford is placed in a situation of knowing what might happen to a five-year-old girl, but is unable to do anything definitive to prevent it happening. A link through to the main plot is provided by DS Hannah Goldsmith, who tries to ensure that Wexford and Burden remain politically correct by avoiding sexist, racist or class-based language and attitudes – the message of the book being (I think) that traditional cultural practices are not per se ok simply because they are traditional in some cultures. Female genital mutilation is wrong, full stop, and political correctness can sometimes blind us to wrongness. The irony is that both Wexford and Burden are in fact sensitive and perceptive men – they have to be to do the work they do – and they do think and act correctly because they know the right thing to do – but Hannah doesn’t see this.
In the end, this twenty-first Wexford novel stands up in terms of the mystery that the Chief Inspector works his way through, and the Kingsmarkham background maintains its apparently inexhaustible supply of murderers and victims. Did we need the distraction of the FGM campaign? I don’t see why not, such issues are part of life, and to present them in the way that Ruth Rendell does here could well make us think a bit more about what is involved, and why people think and act the way they do.
Not In The Flesh by Ruth Rendell, published in paperback by Arrow Books, ISBN:9780099517221
For the full list of books by Ruth Rendell, including those as Barbara Vine, see the Wikipedia site