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THE SATURDAY READ

In this case, clues come too easily to Inspector Wexford

Not in the Flesh A Wexford Novel Ruth Rendell Crown: 306 pp., $25.95

June 14, 2008|Michael Sims | Special to The Times

In 1964, Ruth Rendell's first published novel, "From Doon With Death," gave us Reginald Wexford, a police inspector in Kingsmarkham, which the British author once described as "a sizable town somewhere in the middle of Sussex." He stars in a third of Rendell's more than 60 novels and appears in two short story collections.

The Wexford series boasts such masterpieces as "A Sleeping Life," "Simisola" and "Harm Done," which stand in any lineup of crime fiction classics. Perhaps inevitably, there are a few duds, including Rendell's 2006 Wexford outing, "End in Tears." But if not all are masterpieces, most are reliably satisfying contributions to one of the most interesting series in the genre's history. Her latest, "Not in the Flesh," falls into this category.

The 21st Wexford novel opens like an episode of "Law & Order," with a man discovering bodily remains unearthed by his truffle-hunting dog. "Man or woman?" asks Wexford, by now a chief detective inspector, when he arrives and sees the recovered bones. Another corpse is soon found nearby. Are the deaths related? Wexford starts digging into the lives of the families residing in nearby homes. In her sense of how family history molds future sins, Rendell is reminiscent of Ross Macdonald in his Lew Archer novels set in Southern California. But she has a sly wit that is conspicuously absent from Archer's melancholy empathy and outrageous similes. Wexford also is a more three-dimensional character than Archer.

Rendell has been documenting change in her imaginary Kingsmarkham for 44 years; "Not in the Flesh" continues to hold a mirror to British society. When a character worries that many immigrants in their midst may be carrying knives, Wexford observes, "That was what they called dark-skinned people these days, 'them Somalis,' as they had once indiscriminately called Asians "them Pakis." Rendell also weaves into the story Wexford's heartbreaking attempts to address the tradition of female genital mutilation within the Somali community of Kingsmarkham.

Like most writers, Rendell favors certain kinds of detail. In this novel, she demonstrates again that she enjoys describing weather, scents, eyes, skin coloring and beautiful women; that she is dismayed by environmental despoliation, extreme obesity, child abuse and neglect. "It always brought Wexford pleasure to come upon a good parent," she writes, "something that happened all too seldom."

This sort of unsentimental compassion is a crucial part of Wexford's appeal. Although he has not aged at the rate he would have experienced in the real world, the detective has grown older and wiser. He thinks often about death and about his own health. His daily routine now consists of "a walk to work and a walk home every day, a double dose of Lipitor, a single glass of red wine every evening, and cultivating a liking for salads."

Rendell's preoccupation with plants -- from pond lilies and wildflowers to pleached hornbeams (birch-like trees whose branches are interwoven) -- is as distinctive as Rex Stout's concern with food and clothing in his Nero Wolfe books. (She must agree with Darwin, who once advised travelers to become botanists because almost everywhere you look on Earth, plants dominate the landscape.) She always places her characters within a well-imagined natural world. Season, weather, landscape -- each becomes part of the story, just as they are part of our everyday experience. "Frosts were due," she writes, "frosts would normally have come by now, but none had. If this was global warming, and Wexford thought it must be, it disguised its awful face under a mask of mild innocence."

Unfortunately, Rendell structures "Not in the Flesh" around a couple of Hollywood-sized coincidences and other unlikely plot devices. She shamelessly includes a character's memoir that appears in a newspaper and reveals details just when Wexford needs them. Characters are given awkwardly engineered reasons to remember the details of certain long ago days. Such plot twists give this book a formulaic air, yet the writing is vivid and witty. Wexford is his usual smart, compassionate self as he unravels a web of lies and deception larger than any of the characters realize.

It is standard practice nowadays to say that Rendell "transcends her genre." Moreover, she has often raised the bar for her colleagues. "Not in the Flesh" may not be transcendent or match Rendell's personal best. But written in her usual elegant style, it is a gratifying visit with an enormously appealing character.

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Michael Sims is the author, most recently, of "Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination." He is editor of the forthcoming compilation, "The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime."

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