4 April 2011

Review: A NEW LEASE OF DEATH, Ruth Rendell

BBC Audio, unabridged, on 6 CDs (1997, 2007)
length: 6 hours 52 mins
Read by Nigel Anthony
ISBN 9-781405-684385
Source: borrowed from the library
first published in 1967 in the UK, and then in 1969 in the US as SINS OF THE FATHERS

Publisher's blurb
It was a brutal, vicious crime -- sixteen years old. A helpless old woman battered to death with an axe. Harry Painter hung for it, and Chief Inspector Wexford is certain they executed the right man.
But Reverend Archery has doubts . . . because his son wants to marry the murderer's beautiful, brilliant daughter. He begins unravelling the past, only to discover that murder breeds murder -- and often conceals even deeper secrets . . .

My take:

In many ways this is vintage Rendell. It is nearly as good as Rendell's best, and yet it is only #2 in her Wexford series. And yet it goes back 16 years to when Wexford was new in the job. It was his first investigation on his own.

We had been listening to it in the car, and I had to bring it inside to finish the final CD - that's how good it is. The characters are strong, and beautifully depicted by Nigel Anthony's narration. There's a feeling of the empathy that filters through in the author's description of her characters.

The Reverend Archery is at first bitterly opposed to his son's marriage to the daughter of a hanged murderer but he comes to a point where he desperately wants to prove Wexford was wrong.

The structure of the novel is interesting: at the beginning of each chapter there is a biblical quotation, in keeping with the fact that Reverend Archery is playing the role of amateur sleuth. Wexford pops in and out of the story, even takes a weekend off during Archery's investigation. Wexford's offsider Burden plays a couple of cameo roles. It is Archery who reveals the final story.

An interesting picture emerges of Wexford: incorruptible, sympathetic, the detective who relies on logic not feelings. There are some heavy psychological threads in this novel - almost a presage of what Rendell would achieve in her Barbara Vine books.

The murder had long term effects on Painter's own child, and on the child who found the body. They were not to meet again for 16 years. Both titles are a play on words. Normally we talk about " a new lease of life" but what does re-opening an old murder case do but give death a new lease?

The second title SINS OF THE FATHERS is also ambiguous, for there is more than one father who has sinned. How much should the children pay? Does the gene that makes you murder pass on into the children?
    Deut. 5:9     You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me...
My rating: 4.5

I'm counting this in the British Books Challenge


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - A fine review. I have to confess, this is one of the Wexford novels I haven't read. Not sure how I missed it, but definitely an oversight on my part. I see I shall have to go back and read it.

Dorte H said...

I agree that this is a fascinating Rendell story. What intrigues me is their attitude to inheritance - an attitude which must even have seemed old-fashioned when she wrote it, I believe.


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