Its 1964 and the beginning of summer in the English market town of Kingsmarkham. Margaret Parsons, a shrewish and quiet housewife, disappears from her home. Days later, her murdered body is found in a copse of trees outside of the town. Chief Inspector Wexford leads the enquiry into her death, criss-crossing the almost quintessential Home Counties town to do so.
From Doon with Death is not only the first Wexford novel by Ruth Rendell, it is very much a novel of its time. It isn’t just that the characters pay for everything in pounds, shillings and pence, but it is also a world of sexism and social inequality. The murdered woman and her husband live a sparse life with no mod cons, while two rich couples still have servants in their homes, and few women here have jobs other than “housewife”. Rendell herself, in her afterword, says this novel should now be viewed as a historical novel; our world has changed so much since 1964.
Unfortunately, this novel also reads very much like a first novel, by a writer still obviously learning their craft. There isn’t the character insight that was such a pleasure of her later novels. The only characterisation here that stood out was that of the murdered woman’s husband as he slowly drowned in grief. The plot also felt slow, with an almost join-the-dots feel to it, and the revelation of the secret passion at the heart of this story might have been daring and shocking in 1964 but I spotted it long before it was revealed. This didn’t have the character-driven twists that made her later novels.
What I am grateful for is that this novel was published because it introduced us to the great writer Ruth Rendell would become. She certainly learnt from this novel, the things I found disappointing here are absent from her later novels.
I do not know if this is a good place to start reading Rendell’s Wexford novels, maybe Shake Hands Forever, A Sleeping Life or Put On By Cunning would be better places to start. These novels have all the traits that made her a great crime writer and a great writer.
Edited by Drew Payne
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