November 11, 1997
Random House, 1997 $25.00.
Ruth Rendell's latest Chief Inspector Wexford mystery combines two separate murders, a kidnapping of hostages by environmentalists protesting the building of a new bypass that will destroy Framhurst Great Wood and the archeologically significant foundation of the Roman villa, also the habitat of the Map butterfly, found nowhere else in the British Isles, and the personal stories of a cross-section of contemporary British society. Throughout the book, the theme of progress versus the preservation of the natural world and the existing way of life is evident.
In the beginning of the novel, Wexford is "walking in Framhurst Great Wood for the last time." He has no hope that the protests to stop the bypass will succeed, but his wife, Dora, is a member of one of the protest groups. They argue about the two attitudes: Dora believes in fighting the destruction of this special place; Wexford thinks fighting has done no good in similar conflicts.
The reader sees the wood through Wexford's eyes: "He walked among the trees, chestnuts, great gray beeches with sealskin trunks, oaks whose branches had a green coating of lichen. The trees thinned and spread themselves across the grass that rabbits had cropped. He saw that the coltsfoot was in bloom, earliest of wildflowers. When he was young he had seen blue fritillaries here, plants so localized that they were seen only within a ten-mile radius of Kingsmarkham, but that was a long time ago. When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can't see the countryside destroyed."
Wexford has come to the wood for his walk by car, and, as he is leaving he asks himself if he would be willing to give up his car to save England as he has known it. His reply to himself is, "What a question!" Nevertheless, he does note all the ugliness of modern Britain as he drives home: "...the silos like sausages upended, the sheds full of battery hens, electricity substations sprouting wires, looking like newly landed aliens..."
With his characteristic honesty, Wexford again answers himself, realizing that he is depressed about his beloved wood's endangerment and that on a different day he would be noticing the beauty that still exists in the countryside. Rendell uses the inspector to establish the problem of polarization in the modern industrial world, where every side to every issue has more sides and consensus becomes more difficult as we make more "progress."
The heart of the plot involves the taking of five hostages, among them Wexford's beloved wife Dora. The murder of a young woman, a German tourist, complicates the plot. This murder may or may not be related to the bypass opponents. The job of Wexford and his team is to find the hostages before they are killed. The release of Wexford's wife would appear to speed up the progress of the case, but the clues found on her clothes lead nowhere. It is after the discovery of the body of one of the other hostages that Wexford begins to become desperate to find the remaining three hostages.
How he manages to solve this riddle is dessert waiting at the end of the novel for mystery lovers.
This mystery offers other pleasures for those who enjoy eccentric characters, personal histories, humor and intelligent observations about the modern world. The details of modern life that will be the signs of our times to later generations embellish the plot along the way. Other changes are given almost as much attention as the destruction caused by the increased demands of those who go from one place to another by automobile: the use of soy milk instead of creme in coffee, too many billboards, the homogenization of the country, so that after traveling by automobile as fast as possible the place departed looks exactly like the destination.
Other themes of modern life are woven into the plot: fatherless boys who go astray because they are looking for father figures, unmarried couples having babies on purpose, women demanding independence, even if it means encountering danger, and Chief Inspectors being wrong about some cases.
Rendell's ability to create character in few words and imply developments in relationships in brief scenes gives the texture of her books a depth that makes her work worth reading for the style alone. In describing the parents of three men who are avid environmentalists, she creates a depressing image of the state of "old landowners," a.k.a. "aristocrats," in Britain today. "The place suited its owners. They too looked as if they had started life in colors, in strength and trimness and with a certain polish, but time and the expense of this house and the trials of those children of theirs and of living with those children had stained and bleached and worn all that away. They even looked rather alike, thin, tall, round-shouldered people with small heads, wrinkled faces, and untidy hair." These two are perfect representatives of a way of life that is dying if not already dead.
The seriousness with which she handles human problems gives the fiction a moral foundation and a statement of human values that make it unforgettable. The last message in the book is from Dora. She is still making plans to protest the bypass with her group , and there is some hope for the effectiveness of the protest, for "There'll be twenty thousand people pouring into Kingsmarkham at the weekend." Finally, the new grandmother says to Grandfather Wexford: "And, Reg, after that I'd like to go up and see Sheila and the baby for a few days."