- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006


By Ruth Rendell

Crown, $25, 336 pages


A lawman’s view of the changing world of crime and punishment is wryly expressed by that most traditional of detectives, Chief Inspector Reggie Wexford, when he finds himself confronting not only mayhem but political correctness in Ruth Rendell’s latest vignette of evil doings in the English countryside.

“Vice has changed, hasn’t it?” Wexford plaintively asks his colleague, Detective Inspector Burden. “It’s no longer adultery that’s the crime … Beat someone up and no matter if he never walks again, you’re out after two years inside. Drunk driving and killing a couple of kids disqualifies you for a bit and sentences you to what amounts to nine months. Smoking dope is what everybody does, but have a cigarette and you’re a pariah.”

Characteristically, the detectives seek solace from the morals and mores of the new world by indulging in “a fry up at a greasy spoon,” meaning a meal loaded with everything they aren’t supposed to eat. Despite being scolded about cholesterol by Wexford’s daughter, their immense enjoyment of the meal smacks of a way of thumbing their noses at the advance of political correctness.

Ms. Rendell often walks on the psychologically dark side in her portrayals of crime, but in this case, her plot is lit by ironic humor as she sets the English law enforcement scene in a 21st century bristling with sex, sadism and surrogacy swindles as well as the usual sprinkling of corpses.

She mischievously spices the mixture by introducing the gospel of political correctness as preached by the young and omniscient. Her Inspector Wexford, a man who cloaks shrewdness and experience with avuncular geniality, is saddled with a young female sergeant who is offended when her boss refers to a woman as a “wife” and not a “partner” and who wishes he would remember to say “Ms” and not “Miss.”

Given Sgt. Hannah Goldsmith’s conviction that she could improve on how Wexford does his job, her characterization illustrates her inclination toward psychobabble, driving the point home when she becomes attracted to an Indian police officer with old fashioned ideas. She is insulted and embarrassed by his suggestion that they get to know each other as friends before they leap into bed.

Punctuating violent death with social commentary, the author also takes time to explore Wexford’s worry over the decision of his divorced daughter to expiate her perceived guilt as a failed wife by becoming a surrogate mother for her ex-husband’s current girlfriend. He finds himself caught between a combination of exasperation and affection for his child and anxiety that his wife’s hostility toward their daughter will damage his own marriage.

In between he has to deal with a double murder, an orphaned child and an assortment of unsavory local characters. Ms. Rendell wraps it all up with the skills developed in her previous three-dozen novels and displays her usual gift for characterization.

The book is aptly titled, partly because of its focus on the brutal manipulation of childless couples conned out of substantial sums for babies allegedly to be borne by paid surrogates who may not fulfill their side of the bargain. The problems of surrogacy are also the basis of a poignant side plot in which only Wexford seems truly concerned with a year-old boy whose mother has been murdered and whom nobody seems to want.

Predictably, a potentially happy ending looms ahead for the surrogate mission of Wexford’s daughter and the sturdy detective will live on to solve another case. Yet there is a classic Rendell tweak in the tail of the book when the truth about one of the murders emerges as a surprise that sneaks up on both Inspector Wexford and the reader.

And there is no doubt that crime in modern England has come a long way from the days when Agatha Christie painted a world of well-mannered evil in which crimes were often solved over afternoon tea.

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

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