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BOOKS: Revelation and a duck named Dora

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

THE MONSTER IN THE BOX
By Ruth Rendell
Scribner, $26, 304 pages

THE BRUTAL TELLING
By Louise Penny
Minotaur, $24.99, 384 pages

Over many years, Inspector Wexford has established himself in the minds of his readers as the icon of justice in the English village of Kingsmarkham, where he is relied on to solve murders and resolve all malice domestic.

What readers do not expect, however, is to discover the name of the lurking psychopath as soon as they open Ms. Rendell's latest Wexford saga. Such a revelation ruins the guessing games and the delicious clues, not to mention the red herrings that abound in the sinister atmosphere that breeds murder. How could she?

However, once reconciled to the revolutionary revelation, it's still fun to read, especially her concept of locking up lurking nightmares in a box in order to control, if not always forget them.

Ms. Rendell has written more of a psychological study of Wexford than a murder mystery. The reader hears about his first failed engagement to a woman who had no patience with men who read books, his eventual blissful life with his wife, Dora, who reads more than he does, and most of all, his lingering fixation with Eric Targo, the killer he never caught, and the one who haunts him most.

As the author puts it succinctly — on Page 1: "He had kept silent because he knew no one would believe him. None of it could be proved, not the stalkings nor the stares … not the killings, not any of the signs Targo had made because he knew that Wexford knew and could do nothing about it."

Eric Targo is the monster in Wexford's box, the serial killer and the evil that he tried to psychologically shut away because of his failure to capture and destroy it. The concept of the box is a fascinating idea, and Ms. Rendell always excels in the difficulties of the mind. The plot is surprisingly and rather heavily interwoven with the problem of Muslim acceptance in an English village.

That focuses on the desperate efforts of Detective Sergeant Hannah Goldsmith to remain politically correct while counseling the young Tamina Rahman to complete her education and avoid the world of arranged marriage. Her advice is not welcomed by the girl's parents, and the plot snakes into unexpected territory as Tamina goes her own way. When there is a murder of a gentle gardener, the killer is indeed Wexler's protagonist, Fargo, who has reappeared on the scene. But Ms. Rendell buries the surprise of the plot not so much in the killing as in Fargo's reason for his series of murders. It puts a fresh cast on the topic of what lies in the mind of a serial killer. But happily, Inspector Wexford hasn't changed, and it can only be hoped that reports that Ms. Rendell is abandoning him are untrue.

•••


The Canadian village of Three Pines re-creates Agatha Christie's world with a new twist. When it comes to setting up a crime scene, Ms. Perry has a style that is both deadly and domestic. Descriptions of hot, crisp buttered muffins and culinary delicacies punctuate brooding violence.

Her characterization of those who live in the village and her hints at what lies beneath the idyllic setting is sharp, but it is her delineation of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache that captures and commands attention. He emerges as a star among fictional detectives, a man with problems in his own past, who views with compassion the troubles of others, including those he suspects of murder. Especially notable is his handling of Olivier, the owner of the village bistro and a man of many secrets that Gamache gently yet inexorably lays bare as a sad truth surfaces. What makes Ms. Penny's village mysteries different is that they even wander into the realm of fantasy. Amid the evocatively described delicious meals, there are snatches of poetry, and her characters quote from literary classics. There is only one corpse, but she makes the most of it by clues to the unexpected, and her writing is enhanced by a quirky sense of humor that permits the irrelevant to be amusing rather than ridiculous. For example, she gets away with introducing as a character a duck called Dora that wears sweaters and is owned by an eccentric and foul-mouthed female poet.

Yet it is Ms. Penny's imaginative prose and her talent for conjuring up the presence of evil amid beauty that make her books remarkably memorable as mysteries. As a writer, she is a remarkably good storyteller, and her Inspector Gamache would tower over not only an investigation but a place. He is at home in Three Pines, and he especially likes eating and drinking there. It all makes the place in the depths of the forest come alive. You want to visit Three Pines after you finish the book.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for the McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.