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NO MAN'S NIGHTINGALE
by Ruth Rendell
Doubleday Canada, November 2013
288 pages
$22.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385681720


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

After a lifetime as a police officer, can a man construct a full life in retirement by reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ? Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford (ret.) is not altogether convinced, but he's trying his best. Happily, his former colleague Mike Burden is very pleased to encourage Wexford to take an active, if advisory, role when the Reverend Sarah Hussain, vicar of Saint Peter's Church, Kingsmarkham, is found murdered, strangled to death in the vicarage.

It is not a case that hastens to a speedy conclusion, even if Burden is more or less convinced early on that he knows who did it. The Reverend Sarah dies in October; the case is not marked solved until March of the following year. Part of the reason is that there seems to be no evident motive to account for the vicar's death. She was, it is true, not altogether liked in the town. First of all, she was female, and the daughter of an Irishwoman and an immigrant from India, a Hindu. Indeed, she was brought up in that religion herself until she converted to Christianity in her mid-teens. She is, moreover, though a widow, a single mother of a daughter who is far too young to have been the product of that marriage. And if this were not enough of a challenge to the more traditionally-minded communicants at St Peter's, she is also a modernist in her approach to church services. With her liberal use of what might be called the kiss of peace and her occasional invitation to a local rock band to play at matins, she teeters perilously close to the happy-clappy camp. But is it likely that doctrinal differences can lead to murder? Has anyone ever been killed because she preferred the Alternative Service Book to the Book of Common Prayer?

As the investigation proceeds at a leisurely case, Rendell turns her eye to Wexford's confrontation with retirement and ageing. Although he makes a brave pretense at an almost classical retreat into rustic withdrawal from modernity, spending his days with Gibbon and professing bewilderment at the various electronic aids and gadgets on which modern policing depends. Still, he is more than happy to follow his own well-honed detective instincts and follow leads where they might take him, even when he is shorn of the protection of official status. And his new condition offers certain liberations - he can safely enjoy a glass of wine and a laugh at lunch in public, without being caught by a newspaper photographer in a photo that implies he is not taking his current case sufficiently seriously. Burden is stuck having to look grave and drink tonic water.

And for all his protestations at being a man of another, more conventional age, Wexford is by no means a hopeless conservative. He is quick to tease Burden for "apologetic racism," that is, the ironic recognition that one has said something inherently open to the charge of racism but can find no way of not saying it. He is tolerant of the variety of sexual connections among those he meets. As a committed atheist, he is interested in Sarah Hussain's religious beliefs and more open to crediting her with a sincere faith than many of her parishioners who feel that a woman has no place in the pulpit, especially when she preaches sermons on social justice.

Rendell once announced that she was retiring Wexford for good. Happily, she has changed her mind and found a way to bring him, if not back into active service, at least into active detection. Readers who demand of their police procedurals that they be populated by rapidly mounting bodies dispatched in various and grisly ways will perhaps find this all too mild. But it is beautifully paced, thoughtful, reflective, and unfailingly interesting. And that is quite enough.

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

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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