The first chapter of Ruth Rendell's latest Inspector Wexford novel opens in a field in a small English village, where Honey, a truffle-hunting dog, is digging up morsels of that marvelous fungus that should bring her happy owner 200 pounds sterling per pound of truffle.
Then Honey digs up a morsel that does not make her owner happy at all -- the bones of a human hand. A second body will turn up later.
This opening seems at first like an overused premise in the mystery genre, but a mystery does ensue, and with Rendell's fertile imagination, it's a reasonably good one, though not one of the author's very best.
By Ruth Rendell
A sub-plot emerges, however, about female genital mutilation among Britain's Somali immigrants. It has nothing to do with the main story, but seems to be Rendell's chief reason for writing this book. Described in gruesome detail, it becomes a distraction from the already thin primary plot.
It's virtually impossible, however, for this author to pen a dull page, and she tells her tale brilliantly. The methods of solving the multiple mysteries are described in painstaking detail, so that the investigation moves slowly as Wexford and the reader together discover one fact (or clue) at a time.
Wexford begins with the vindictive owner of the neglected lot where the dog was digging, only to uncover animosities caused when the owner was refused permission to build new homes.
When it is discovered that the body has been there for 11 years-- just the time when the owner started his plans -- the net widens among neighbors and visitors who may be either victim or perpetrator.
Expectedly, Rendell takes her plot in unexpected directions. The procession of colorful characters she introduces is at least as interesting as the plot.
Before the bodies have been identified, a local newspaper carries excerpts from an upcoming book by a woman searching for a father, who went missing at the time of one of the murders.
Whether her revelations are a red herring or pertinent to Wexford's case is another issue to be discovered step by step.
The final twist, however, is made anticlimactic by the suspense of a raid aimed at sparing a Somali girl from mutilation.
Robert Croan is a senior editor of the Post-Gazette.