Space Ramblings

Ruth Rendell

Sometimes you pick the books you read, sometimes the books pick you when you’re in a place with limited available reading material. I’m obviously not the demographic for Rendell’s books, but still picking up a copy and seeing all the praise for it, from reputable publications calling her the greatest living available writer ever, I expected something… better.

Rendell isn’t a bad writer, but there was nothing in Not In the Flesh, that half the contributors to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine couldn’t plop out annually. And looking at the list of Rendell’s novels, that seems to be what she does. The Wexford novels are obviously phoned in. Not in the Flesh is a novella fleshed out a little with a female genital mutilation story that has nothing to do with anything else, except that it’s an issue the author cares about.

The Kate Atkinson novel I read afterward was not only about a dozen times better, it read like the author had put some work into it. Rendell doesn’t. The outcome of the case is obvious. The clues pop out at you from the background material. An aside describing a ring means that the ring will become significant. When Rendell goes on about a ring on another character’s finger given to her by her murdered boyfriend, the connection between the two murders becomes obvious. Similarly when she goes off on a rant about a writer’s religious novels and points out that one stands out, it becomes obvious that the novel was stolen and that explains the first murder. Anyone with half a brain knows the ending 100 pages before the plodding Wexford finally gets there. All this is lazy writing. Rendell could probably do better. She doesn’t bother. And these things apparently sell well enough that she doesn’t need to.

All fair enough. What I was less prepared for was the weirdly dogmatic political correctness and the sheer hatefulness of some of it. It’s not that I disagree with her, so much as the first 100 pages felt like being shouted at shrilly by someone on a train. Every few pages there’s some petty mini-lecture. I’ve read Henning Mankell. His politics are there, but he doesn’t relentlessly beat you over the head with them. Hannah Goldsmith becomes unbearable a few pages in, and it’s unrealistic that a junior officer would even be bullying a superior officer over such petty things. But after the first 100 or so pages, Rendell levels off and focuses her politics on a sideline about genital mutilation that has nothing to do with anything. The homophobic character sketch of Greg, is an odd choice for a woman who relentlessly lectures on bigotry.

It’s the hatefulness that’s unpleasant. Whether it’s through the eyes of Wexford, a middle aged male inspector or one of his subordinates, the descriptions are oddly hateful and when it comes to women, catty. They’re not plausibly those of Wexford. And they clash with the tone. The bias also makes the mystery much less of a mystery. You can tell the villains by how hatefully Rendell describes them or how much of a tear she goes on over them. Her rant about Son of Nun makes the final culprit obvious. It’s sloppy, but again Rendell clearly doesn’t care.

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