Book review: Inspector Wexford assists in the case of the dead vicar

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At the end of "No Man's Nightingale," author Ruth Rendell tells us that if this were a Victorian novel, one of the major characters would be sure to marry retired Chief Inspector Wexford's grandson.

In a way, however, this latest Wexford mystery, No. 24 in the popular series, is a lot like a Victorian novel, although considerably shorter and less long-winded. For one thing, the Church of England figures prominently in ways that would not be out of place in Trollope's Barchester. For another, there is an array of eccentric, Dickensian characters, some germane, others superfluous to the plot.

By Ruth Rendell
Scribner ($26).

And as always, Ms. Rendell takes the reader in one direction and then quickly switches gears with a revelation or a totally unexpected action. It can become a dizzying ride. "Withholding information from the reader should be part of any story," she said in a recent London interview.

A clergy person strangled to death in the vicarage is discovered by a housekeeper. Only here the reverend is a woman, Sarah Hussain, and Asian to boot. She had been a very 21st-century vicar, welcoming to people of diverse ages, backgrounds and lifestyles. She used a modern book of prayer and often substituted popular songs for the traditional hymns.

As a result, she attracted a sizable congregation but chafed the sensitivities of conservatives in the town of Kingsmarkham and even among clerics working within the borders of her own little church. Racism, sexism, bigotry and simple resistance to change may all have been factors in her murder.

Reginald Wexford is now retired from the police force, still adjusting to his major new life change. He is living quietly in Kingsmarkham with his wife, Dora, enjoying the opportunity to catch up on his reading. Now, he is tackling Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Several passages from Gibbon are quoted at pertinent points in the action. Still, the former policeman misses his job, and when his replacement and former deputy Mike Burden calls, inviting Wexford to accompany him on the current murder case -- in an unofficial capacity, of course -- the reluctant retiree jumps at the opportunity.

Wexford is allowed to attend meetings at the police station and sit in on interviews, although it must be an active officer who asks questions. Before long, he is finding areas of disagreement with Burden's methods and conclusions -- much to the new chief inspector's dismay -- and Wexford soon goes off on his own to visit suspects and witnesses.

He has no authority to force anyone to talk or even meet with him, but most of the time Wexford's combination of urbanity and personal charm win over the people he goes to see.

The dead vicar was an unashamed single mother to a teenage daughter, Clarissa Hussain, who reads a poem by George Herbert at her mother's memorial service that gives this book its title: "I envy no man's nightingale or spring. ... Who plainly say, my God, my King."

At first hostile to any help from outside, Clarissa ends up renting a room in the home of Wexford's wealthy actress daughter, where she meets Wexford's grandson, and the two become, in modern terminology, "an item." Whether their involvement helps or hinders the investigation is a matter of question.

Clarissa does not know the identity of her father. She was to be told on her 18th birthday, just weeks after her mother's murder. When she does learn his identity, it's a somewhat unusual revelation, and she does not take the news easily. It's an answer that could not have been part of a Victorian novel. Here, however, her entanglement with the Wexford boy helps her on the path to acceptance.

There is an entertaining subplot centered on Maxine Sams, the overly talkative cleaning woman of Wexford and Bruden, as well as of the murdered vicar. Once Maxine discovers the body, there's no stopping her -- and no secrets when it comes to her facts or conjectures.

A death involving Maxine's son and his family is less funny but handled deftly and brought to bear on the alibi of one of the police's chief suspects in the vicar's death. Quite a bit darker is the suicide of one of the murdered woman's former suitors, but Ms. Rendell quickly drops that strand in favor of more swiftly moving plot twists.

She is also painstaking in arousing our sympathy for a most unlikable character when he is taken into custody and falsely accused. On one level, this novel -- arguably the entire Wexford series -- is a tribute to Agatha Christie. "No Man's Nightingale" obviously pays homage to Christie's "Murder at the Vicarage," yet Ms. Rendell's style is distinctly her own, and of our time in ways that the older writer could never have imagined.




Robert Croan is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette senior editor.

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