- - Friday, December 23, 2011

By Ruth Rendell
Scribner, $26, 288 pages

It is a house where three couples have lived, happily and unhappily. It is covered in green leaves shading in color to copper and red. Beneath is pale red brick. In the paved backyard is a manhole with a heavy and elaborately decorated Italianate pot planted on top. And in the depths below lies the horror of four long-dead bodies.

This is Ruth Rendell at her authoritative best, restoring retired Chief Inspector Wexford to his world of crime investigation and taking the reader with him on an expertly conducted tour of London streets and houses. Wexford is especially impressed by Georgian houses because of their diversity, their “multiplicity of bow windows and columns and arches and balconies - each one of them a surprise, ivory stucco all of them, as if carved from vanilla ice cream.” Within them wait clues and crimes and unpredictable characters.

When Wexford looks at Orcadia Cottage and the secret it held in its depths, he reflects on the irony of its apparent serenity, its stillness and quiet, as though nothing had ever disturbed its peacefulness.

He imagines that the house “smiled calmly, and if it could speak, would say, ‘I have been here for two hundred years and seen many foolish human beings come and go, but I shall be here for another two hundred years when those corpses in my foundation are forgotten.’ “

Wisely, the author has chosen for Wexford’s life in retirement a past crime that makes the most of his gently eccentric style. He is called in as an unpaid expert adviser by Tom Ede, a detective superintendent in London, and nothing could please Wexford more. He is enjoying retirement, especially because one of his daughters has invited him and his wife, Dora, to stay in her carriage house in London, but he is a little bored. Orcadia Cottage is the answer, a mystery tailored to his needs, although he has no idea how complicated and even dangerous it will make his life.

The gruesome discovery of the corpses entombed behind the picturesque house is made by a couple who have just moved in and are planning structural changes. That’s when the blocked-off door that used to be in a wall leading to the cellar is found, and that’s when the manhole cover is wrenched off to reveal a pit full of ghastly remains. There is the skeleton of a man with valuable jewelry stuffed in his pockets. There are the decomposed bodies of another man and a woman, fully clothed but with no clue to their identity.

Wexford embarks eagerly on his new investigation, although he is keenly aware he is no longer in any official capacity. Then he is confronted suddenly by a family disaster involving the stabbing of his daughter Sylvia, who still lives in the town of Kingsmarkham, where the inspector used to preside over law enforcement. It turns out that she was stabbed by a much younger man with whom she had been having an affair.

It is her rejection of that man that triggers the assault. She recovers only to discover, in a macabre development, that her attacker has returned to her home to hang himself in her teenage son’s bedroom.

The Wexfords find themselves forced to offer their old home as at least a temporary refuge for their daughter, whose response reaches a remarkable degree of selfishness and callousness. Meantime, Wexford plunges more deeply into the mysteries of Orcadia Cottage. Unraveling that puzzle involves a series of interviews with people familiar with the house and the neighborhood, some of whom prove to have reason not to be entirely candid with a sudden police intrusion. Wexford is a soothing presence, although he admits to himself that he misses the days when he had real authority and was not merely being used as a consultant.

As might be predicted, he gets more deeply enmeshed in the probe into the darkness of the past, which discloses prostitution as well as murder, and he almost loses his life in solving the case.

Ms. Rendell is extraordinarily good at the kind of plotting in which the house and the city dominate the activity. Wexford walks all over London neighborhoods that renew their past and acquire new life under his questing eye.

The author even mischievously introduces Wexford to the kind of domesticity that used to belong to his wife in the days when he was always out chasing killers.

This is the kind of mystery at which Ms. Rendell excels, combining the past and the present and binding the package together with the benevolent presence of Wexford. His fans will be relieved that the chief inspector is neither gone nor forgotten. It may be predicted that because he’s so good at what he does, he will be as busy in retirement as he was in the days when he ran the show. His is a past world, and it isn’t easy for him to adjust to change, but law enforcement would be foolish indeed to let him wither away. It’s still a question of how to catch a killer, and Inspector Wexford will always be an expert at that.

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



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