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by Ruth Rendell
Doubleday, November 2005
336 pages
ISBN: 0385662025

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

On a warm night in June, someone pitches a chunk of concrete from a little bridge over a road, aimed for a silver Honda. But the perpetrator is over-anxious and the lump lands on the wrong car. A couple of months later, the driver of the Honda is found battered to death and this death is followed soon enough by yet another corpse.

Although Wexford and his team are morally certain of the identity of the killer, they find it surprisingly difficult to prove, in part because the motivation remains elusive. It is not until the unnaturally hot summer tardily turns to autumn and then to a premature winter that the case is cracked in an exciting climax capped by a startling revelation.

Things are not going well for Wexford in this book. Not only is the case maddeningly difficult, but the local newspaper, which used to be an inoffensive vehicle for community puffery, has also now adopted the bulldog journalistic style of its metropolitan counterparts and is baying for Wexford's early retirement.

He has to deal with two new officers as well, one of whom, DS Hannah Goldsmith, seems rather more offended by violations of the standards of political correctness than by actual law-breaking for which she can often find a sociological explanation. I might have felt that Rendell was here slipping into whatever the female equivalent of old-codgerdom might be were it not for a recent newspaper item from the UK reporting that the victim of a hit-and-run had been reproved by a policeperson for describing the absconding driver as fat, a clearly insensitive choice of language.

Though he still retains the confidence of his superiors and the respect of his juniors, Wexford seems to be becoming faintly fossilized as his terms of reference and even his taste in food seem incomprehensible to the younger staff.

Nor are things any better at home, either. His difficult daughter, Sylvia, is pregnant once again with a third child. Its father is her ex-husband and Sylvia has got pregnant in order to present him and his new and infertile fiancee with a baby they can call their own. Wexford's wife, Dora, is furious with Sylvia and with Wexford for not being angrier than he is about it all.

In short, nothing is either as it was or as it ought to be in this book. The weather has gone mad. A kind of smug censoriousness appears the order of the day. Sexual relations are no longer governed by the old rules, but are still subject to the same old doubts and confusions as ever. Through it all, Wexford, that decent, old-fashioned, and admirable man, picks his way painstakingly to a conclusion that he is reluctant to reach but unafraid to confront.

Perhaps as a function of her advancing age, Rendell is becoming increasingly concerned with the interplay between past and present and with the contemporary willingness to discard the past without examination. Yet she cannot be accused of creeping Toryism on this account.

Her most recent non-series novel, THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN, opens with a brilliant passage in which the superbly creepy Mix, devotee of John Christie, deplores the gentrification of Notting Hill that has resulted in the scene of his crimes, 10 Rillington Place, disappearing utterly from view and consciousness. "Not even a blue plaque," Mix mourns. The past may be forgotten, but it is not gone, as Mix will prove, and no amount of fresh paint and geraniums can keep it ever at bay.

In END IN TEARS, the past, though not romanticized, is rather more benign. Still, the present has difficulty finding the ways and the language to deal with persistent human desires that are independent of time and place. What makes this highly-recommended novel moving are the small successes; the failures chill us to the bone.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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