25 July 2010

Review: THE MONSTER IN THE BOX, Ruth Rendell

Published by Hutchinson 2009
ISBN 978-0-091-93149-0
279 pages
#22 in the Wexford series

All of his working life Reg Wexford has thought he has known of an unconvicted killer. When he was a young police officer, a young woman, Elsie Carroll, was found murdered. Her husband George, who always proclaimed his innocence, was charged with her murder, brought to trial, convicted, and then freed on appeal because of the judge's misdirection of the jury. Wexford's bosses were convinced they had got the right person, but Reg Wexford thought he knew better. He was convinced that a smug little man, Eric Targo, was the real murderer. Reg just didn't know why. When another woman was found murdered, again Reg was convinced Targo had something to do with it, he just couldn't work out the connection.

This was the beginning of a strange relationship between Wexford and Targo. Wexford becomes convinced that Targo is stalking him. And then Targo disappears from Reg's life. Now Targo has come back.

THE MONSTER IN THE BOX has an interesting structure. Much of it consists of a conversation between Wexford and his deputy Burden, in which Wexford describes all of the times Targo has apppeared his life and why he became convinced that Targo was stalking him. The author uses the novel as a vehicle to reveal to the reader a lot of personal detail from Wexford's life: his early days in the police force, his courtship of his wife Dora. The time frame must go back nearly four decades, and times when Burden has been part of that timeline are pinpointed. As the timeline gets closer to the present, it is clear there will be a more modern incident involving Targo. Wexford is convinced he is a psychopathic killer.

I found the time layers of this novel a little confusing.
The following passage Wexford and Burden getting together for the first time for Wexford to relate his story:
They chose the Olive and Dove, the little room called the snug which over the years they had made almost their own. Of course others used it, as the yellow-stained ceiling and lingering smell of a million cigarettes bore witness. In a few years' time a smoking ban would come in, the walls and ceiling be redecorated, new curtains hung at the clouded wondows and ashtrays banished, but in the late nineties there was no hint of that. Outside the window it was mostly young people who could be seen sitting at the tables under coloured umbrellas on the Olive's veranda, for the evening was as mild as the day had been, while their elders crowded into the saloon bar. All those people or those who succeeded them would ten years in the future be obliged to huddle on that verandah, rain or shine, snow or fog, if they wanted ot smoke.
I re-read this passage several times to make sure I had got the time frame correct. I've put the clue I picked up in bold.

In fact, Rendell had me reading a few passages in THE MONSTER IN THE BOX several times. That might get the thumbs down from some readers.

Ruth Rendell announced last year that THE MONSTER IN THE BOX is her last Wexford novel. If it is, then I am disappointed, because even though it does survey all of Reg's life, it doesn't feel to me he has gone out on the high that I wanted.

Mind you, it is still a good read. My rating 4.7

You might like to check this post: Forgotten book: FROM DOON WITH DEATH.

Other reviews to check:
  • Petrona:
    "the strength of this author’s writing is such that it does not matter if some elements of the novel are a bit predictable, because it is so full of rich (but lightly presented) detail, with so many very astute observations about the changes in society over the past 50 years during which this series has been written, that one is simply held to the pages, until the last one is turned."
  • Random Jottings:
    "this book ... has an elegiac quality to it"
Other titles reviewed on this blog
Want the full list of Ruth Rendell novels?: check Fantastic Fiction.
Don't forget she writes as Barbara Vine too.


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for this thoughtful and fine review. I'm glad that you enjoyed the book, despite the time frame thing. I agree that the book didn't have that "out-with-a-bang" quality, but like you, I enjoyed it. I actually liked it quite a lot.

Kerrie said...

In an interesting sideline, I thought Wexfor's monitoring of Targo's movements was also a bit like stalking, but of course police officers never stalk do they? even when they are doing it in their own time?
I'm a bit inclined to the view (as Random Jottings said) that she wrote this some time back - what do you think Margot?

Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Oh, no, of course police officers would never stalk...
Interesting question about whether Rendell wrote this one a while ago. I wouldn't be at all surprised, come to think of it. Her descriptions of Wexford's early life just seem as though this wasn't something recent.

Deb said...

I'm sorry to hear that Rendell has said this will be the last Wexford because, as huge a Rendell/Wexford fan as I am, this book was a big disappointment to me. It wasn't just the shifts in time that were sometimes confusing, but the whole story itself had a rather let-down feeling. Possibly she cobbled parts of it together from sequences that she had edited out of previous Rexford books. Anyway, it just didn't hang together for me.

Kerrie said...

This is an interetsing perspective DEb. There wasn't much backstory that I felt I had seen before (about his courtship etc) so I thought perhaps these were details Rendell had noted down but never used.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that this is the last Wexford: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/05/rendell-killing-off-wexford.

If I remember correctly, I heard Rendell deny it herself in a US appearance, but I may be confusing other exaggerated reports of literary deaths I've heard denied.

I think these reports, followed by denials, sometimes come about because an author gets bored with her creation rather faster than do most readers, and all publishers, and a bit of the tug of war becomes public.


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