Rendell is at the top of her game in this latest outing featuring the intrepid Inspector Wexford. A long-forgotten cold case involving the “monster” Eric Targo is violently resurrected through the Inspector’s memories of when he was a young, fit rookie police officer in the 1970s. Clearly the aging inspector is never surer of his recollections and the certainty that Targo is some kind of monstrous serial killer.
Plagued by memories from a distant past, Wexford spies Eric Targo visiting the Rahmans, a successful, upwardly mobile Asian family. The sight of his white van parked outside their terrace is a surprising catalyst for all of the hunches, speculations, and suspicions that the Inspector has built up over the years.
Now, a lifetime later, Wexford is ready to tell Mike Burdon about the brutal murder of Elsie Carroll, found dead in her bedroom one evening while her husband was out at his whist club. Targo had been exercising his golden spaniel in the street shortly after Elsie’s murder. But what really sends chills into Wexford’s soul is Targo’s absurd and sinister stare as he gazes over at Wexford from under a streetlamp.
While Targo hides his birthmark, a purple-brown naevus shaped like a map of
an unknown continent, Wexford nods faintly, saying to himself that “he did it,
whoever he is, he killed Elsie Carroll.” Targo nods faintly as if to say, “ We know each other now. We are bound together now."
Rendell deftly manipulates Wexford’s recollections and his confessional to Burden with that of Wexford’s young life as recalls his first loves - his engagement to a girl called Alison, then his obsession with a girl in a red dress, "just enough to think that one day he would like to marry someone like her," and his betrayal in Cornwall with a young girl by the name of Medora Holland.
Mike Burden continues to remind Wexford that Targo has absolutely no motive as Wexford
nonetheless attempts to grandly build his case, disclosing the murder of seventeen-year-old Billy Kenyon, a young autistic man who loved to work at Kingsmarkham’s Botanical Gardens
and was savagely murdered in 1976 - perhaps by Targo.
Rendell intuits her compelling mystery with a kind of benevolent racism in the Rahmans, who have a solidarity Wexford has seldom seen before the immigrants came. But Wexford must also counter the benign martyrdom of his colleague Hannah Goldsmith, who is convinced that the Rahman family’s youngest, sixteen-year-old Tamina, is being pushed into a forced marriage.
Along with Wexford’s wild imaginings and Eric Targo’s madness, this man “with cold blue eyes,” the novel bleeds the past into the present.
With much of the tale focusing on a Kingsmarkham that once was, Wexford’s convoluted case suddenly ripples outwards.
There's the fear of what Eric Targo might do next as he becomes an invisible container locked in Wexford’s mind, a man who seems to lack even a tenuous connection to the murder victims whose deaths Wexford is investigating.