Ruth Rendell cannot write fast enough to satisfy me and her huge legion of loyal fans on both sides of the Atlantic. She is an author who consistently produces riveting mysteries filled with keen psychological insight into the darker side of human nature. Her characters always have depth, never appearing merely as plot devices. Combine these qualities with a superlative literary style and touches of humor and it is easy to see why she has won countless awards for mystery writing. Ruth Rendell is once again in fine form and I have no hesitation in enthusiastically recommending her new novel, The Babes in the Wood.
Avid readers of Ruth Rendell’s books will be thrilled at the return of Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden, one of the most popular teams in detective fiction. Wexford is the seasoned investigator, rumpled and crusty yet cultured and sharp as a tack when it comes to cracking tough cases. The sartorially elegant Burden, although younger, is more conservative in outlook and is constantly appalled by the moral laxity of today’s youth.
Wexford once again solves a baffling case while simultaneously facing problems in his personal life. In a prologue to the novel, a religious sect performs a strange rite of confession on the grounds of a country estate. The action then moves forward in time and we find Wexford worrying about the rising flood waters that threaten his home after days of torrential rain. While moving books and furniture upstairs, Wexford learns that two teenagers and their babysitter are missing. He begins to investigate, interviewing the hysterical mother who is convinced her son and daughter have been drowned in the floods. The rude and overbearing father, however, seems less worried about their welfare than he is annoyed at the inconvenience to himself. When one of the three turns up dead on a country estate, Wexford delves deeper, discovering the babysitter’s disturbed and violent past, the girl’s troubled relationship with her father and the boy’s involvement in a strange religious cult. His investigation of the case is hampered by witnesses with their own secrets and reasons to lie about what they know. Even when one of the missing turns up safe and sound, the case is no nearer being solved. Wexford’s own family concerns also weigh heavily on his mind, especially his dislike of his divorced daughter’s new lover. For once failing to trust the instincts that serve him so well in his professional life, he refrains from interfering in his daughter’s affairs with disastrous consequences.
It is testament to Ruth Rendell’s skill as a writer that we care just as much about the resolution of Wexford’s family problems as we do about the resolution of the mystery. Yet the mystery itself is intensely satisfying. The solution is obvious only when it is revealed by Wexford, who explains not only whodunit but also why. Ruth Rendell never cheats her readers; all the information, both factual and psychological, is there if we are smart enough to put it all together. I wasn’t, and I’m confident you too will have the same forehead-smacking realization as I did when you reach the end of The Babes in the Wood. And isn’t that, after all, the hallmark of a fine mystery novel?