29 July 2009

Review: FROM DOON WITH DEATH, Ruth Rendell

Arrow books, ISBN978-0-099-52476-2, 177 page. This edition published 2007. This book was first published in 1964. The 2 covers I've used here make an interesting comparison. The one with the lipstick is an early one, with clear connections with the book, while the one with the Celtic cross really doesn't mean much at all.

In six years of married life Ronald Parsons had never come home to an empty house. Margaret was always there, and after only an hour and a half of waiting, he approached Mike Burden who lived just down the road. Burden's new boss Chief Inspector Reg Wexford is of the opinion that Margaret has bolted, but he sets Burden to doing the usual checks, with no real results. Two days later Margaret's body is discovered in the woods on the outskirts of town, and that's when it becomes obvious that Margaret had a life, a history, that her husband knew nothing about.

Not only was FROM DOON WITH DEATH the first book in the Wexford series, it was Ruth Rendell's debut novel. I wrote recently how FROM DOON WITH DEATH is in some senses a "forgotten book" and I encourage you to read that post because of all the extra information it contains. This year the Wexford series of 22 titles comes to an end with THE MONSTER IN THE BOX.

In the history of the series, FROM DOON WITH DEATH was important because it introduced Wexford and Burden, and really broke new ground in crime fiction with the creation of a detective duo in what was essentially a police procedural. Interestingly Wexford is already 52 years old, and so Rendell is immediately faced with the problem of how to age her detective. As Reactions to Reading points out in her recent post, if he had been aged in real-time, a la Ian Rankin's Rebus, Wexford would now be 97. So I reckon Wexford and Burden only age 1 year every 5 or 6 years, although their children do grow up.

I don't think FROM DOON WITH DEATH is Rendell's best book. It has many signs that this is a debut novel. In addition to its comparative brevity, I think Rendell's understanding of police procedures is a bit limited. Wexford comes over with a coarseness that is considerably reduced in later books, where he and Burden are both given quite detailed back-stories, and elements of family interest. And speaking of elements, I think there is a gender element in FROM DOON WITH DEATH, and if you read the book you'll see what I mean, that must have been a bit of a jolt for crime fiction readers in the mid 1960s.

My rating: 4.2

There are many other things I could comment on but I'm going to save some of that for the discussion to take place on oz_mystery_readers in early August. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine is listed as one of my favourite authors. I think she has made a huge contribution to the crime fiction genre.

Ruth Rendell (1930- ) was made CBE in 1996 and a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk in 1997. She sits in the House of Lords for Labour. She has many awards and honours.


Dorte H said...

A fine and fair review. And to some extent it gives wanna-be writers hope that even Rendell started out with something that was less than perfect :D
Still, I think her characters were a novelty if you compare her to Margery Allingham and many others of the old school.

Kerrie said...

I agree Dorte. I think she was really breaking new ground, although if you look at the work of somebody like Colin Watson you can see a similiarity there, even though his work was a spoof.

Martin Edwards said...

This book was really quite adventurous for its time, in terms of plot elements, which shows how far society has moved since it was published. But I agree, it's still enjoyable.

Bernadette in Australia said...

Are Wexford and Burden the first detective duo? I hadn't thought of that aspect.

Kerrie said...

They must be close Bernadette. I've thrown that question at 4MA. Someone there may know.
What do you think Martin? Are they the first British duo?

Martin Edwards said...

I'm tempted to suggest Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson as the first British detective duo. As for police officer duos, memory fails for the moment, but I'd guess that the likes of John Bingham and Maurice Proctor would have created one or more duos prior to Wexford and Burden.

Kerrie said...

Haven't heard of those two Martin. Fantastic Fiction lists John Bingham but no plot outlines. THE PATON STREET CASE is 1955. Did Inspector Morgan have an offsider?

FF lists Maurice Procter with novels from 1951. THE CHIEF INSPECTOR'S STATEMENT.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

I remember greatly enjoying Ruth Rendell's novels in my younger days. Thanks for the reminder.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Me, too. I remember going to the library hoping a new one would magically appear. Not as easy then to find out.

Bart's Bookshelf said...

Hi there. Great review!

Just dropping by as the host of the Aug 2nd edition of the Book Reviews Blog Carnival, to let you know I've added you to the post.

Thanks for submitting your review. :o)


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