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An Unkindness of Ravens by Ruth Rendell (Pantheon: $15.95; 245 pp.)

October 13, 1985|Mark Schorr | Schorr's fourth mystery, "Bully!" (St. Martin's) will be published in October. and

The proper young women of Kingsmarkham are mad as heck and not going to take it anymore. Although most seem to have suffered nothing much worse than middle-class malaise, they have declared war on humans carrying a Y chromosome.

Their credo of militant feminist misanthropy includes a constitution, and rule eight makes it mandatory to carry a knife or other weapon for self-defense. It sounds like a bit of silliness, adolescent venting.

But Chief Inspector Wexford of Kingsmarkham CID is not amused. Especially since he comes across the group, which calls itself Action for the Radical Reform of Intersexual Attitudes (ARRIA), during the course of a murder investigation. And the victim, Rodney Williams, is exactly the sort of sexist exploiter of women ARRIA members would like to sink their teeth, or knives, into.

As Wexford investigates, he finds that Williams was a bigamist. Two wives were not enough--he was a philandering bigamist, with an eye for young women. Wexford gradually untangles Williams' life, but not before three more stabbings.

The chief inspector, who has appeared in 13 of Ruth Rendell's 25 novels, is an erudite, thorough investigator. He discourses on Kate Greenaway and Franz Kafka, or Raymond Chandler and Oscar Wilde, with equal familiarity. He is a compassionate man, who can put the screws on if need be:

"Wexford, when interrogating, would allow any amount of digression but never total distraction," Rendell writes. "Those he questioned were obliged to come back to the point sooner or later. It was hard on them, for often they believed they had escaped. The leash had snapped and freedom was surely there for the taking, but the hand always came down and snatched up the broken end."

Barbara Wodehouse would approve.

"An Unkindness of Ravens," which draws its name from the ARRIA logo, a raven with a woman's head and chest, is cleverly plotted and deftly written. The sub-plot involving plodding Deputy Inspector Burden and his pregnant wife, Jenny, enhance the main story, as do details of Wexford's own domestic life.

The novel has none of that stifling old china fragility that some British authors bring to tea-cozy mysteries. The characters act realistically, for all the good and bad that implies. Although the idea of ARRIA may seem far-fetched, Rendell never lets it degenerate into gross implausibility.

Rendell, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Edgar Award, is regarded as one of the top mystery writers working today. With "An Unkindness of Ravens," she shows, once again, that reputation is well-deserved.

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