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by Ruth Rendell
Doubleday Canada, November 2011
272 pages
$22.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385671628

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As keeps happening to the police detectives of whom we have grown most fond, Chief Inspector Reg Wexford has collected his carriage clock and gone into retirement. At last, he has enough time to read, to listen to music, to walk. And, soon enough, it all begins to pall.

Happily for Reg, a chance encounter with a Tom Ede, now Detective Superintendent Ede, whom Wexford had mentored some thirty years ago, leads to a "New Tricks" sort of informal appointment for Reg, helping and advising on a startling and cold case, where four corpses, three of which have been dead for a number of years, the other, a young woman, only perhaps for two, have been discovered in the coal cellar of a cottage in St John's Wood, London.

The cottage is Orcadia, which first appeared in A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES, Rendell's 1998 novel. The bodies were found by the present owner, whose life, he moans, has been changed out of all recognition by the discovery, thanks to the lurid headlines in the tabloids. While it is an advantage to have read the earlier novel, it is by no means necessary. Rendell begins with a brisk and effective history of the cottage and its owners, as well as a description of the double portrait painted in front of the house and now in the possession of the Tate Gallery, all facts relevant one way or another to the bodies found in the cellar.

Luckily for the reader (and for the Metropolitan Police), one of Wexford's daughters has lent him and his wife Dora a London pied terre, a coachhouse in Hampstead. So Reg is conveniently on the scene to be recruited as an unpaid adviser when the Orcadia affair hits the newspapers. At this point, the reader must suspend disbelief to a fair degree. There seems no need to ask Wexford in (though of course he does solve the case in the end) but we forgive Rendell because the conceit gives her the chance to combine two of the three major divisions of her work - the police procedural and the London social novel. (The third, the psychological thrillers written under the Barbara Vine name, is not really represented here.)

I have always liked the London novels rather better than Wexford and Kingsmarkham, especially in recent years. In them, Rendell's attention is on the random little societies that spring up and disappear within the context of a vast urban scene, tiny social nubs in which individuals struggle for the kind of connection that a smaller town more easily provides. In THE VAULT, Wexford is an outsider, but one who falls rapidly under the spell of North London as he discovers it on long, marvellous walks, walks that sometimes serendipitously (if a bit improbably) result in the uncovering of a clue.

Nevertheless, readers who are attached to the Kingsmarkham Wexford will not be disappointed here. Wexford in London is a new, or at least a renewed, man. All that walking has made him thinner and more energetic. Where he had briefly sunk into a kind of premature retirement not just from the police but from active life, now he is engaged again, bending all his detectival instincts and experience into understanding how this part of London works while still revelling in the city and its pleasures.

The very final paragraph of the novel lightly suggests that Rendell might not be finished with the adventures of Wexford in London quite yet. Whether the slightly strained notion of Wexford as unpaid adviser to Tom Ede can hold up, certainly the relationship between Reg and the younger (and Evangelical) police inspector is full of entertaining possibilities. As is London, with its gardens, its inviting walks, its Georgian houses and its curious crimes.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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