>The point of this post is not to review Ruth Rendell´s novels, but to scrutinize her long-standing detective, Reg Wexford, beginning in the 1960s. So for this first part I have re-read her four first crime novels – and chosen to let many of the quotations speak for themselves.
1) From Doon with Death (1964)
In this story of a missing woman and a madwoman in the attic, we meet Chief Inspector Reg Wexford for the very first time. “He was taller than Burden, thick-set without being fat, fifty-two years old, the very prototype of an actor playing a top-brass policeman.” Wexford is a local man who knows all and sundry in the area, a very competent detective, but not necessarily a patient or sympathetic man. He even ridicules his subordinates´ ideas when he thinks they are irrelevant to the investigation, and obviously enjoys provoking his sidekick Mike Burden now and then, “´They´re having a real humdingin´ affair,´ Wexford interrupted, ´knocking it off in the back of his jag.´ Burden was shocked.”
Like many other fictional detectives, Wexford knows his classics and often quotes poetry. Besides he seems to be a connoisseur of lipstick and women´s scents which proves very useful in the first books. The reader knows that he is a married man, but does not know anything else about his family life.
In the first novel Wexford uses Sherlock Holmes´ well-known method of gathering people around him to tell them what happened and how, and when he has found his murderer he can afford to be kind. Thus a rising crime star was born – though the characters have not quite achieved their full potential in this debut.
2) A New Lease of Death (1967 – aka Sins of the Fathers).
A man called Painter was hung for murder 15 years ago. Now his daughter´s father-in-law-to-be, a village vicar playing the amateur sluth, tries to prove that Painter did not do it. Throughout the novel Reg Wexford is angry that anyone thinks he didn´t get his first murder case right!
This is how Mike Burden describes his fifty-five-year-old superior. “He turned round when he heard Wexford come in. The Chief Inspector´s heavy grey face was a little greyer than usual, but he showed no other sign of tiredness and his eyes, dark and hard as basalt, showed a gleam of triumph. He was a big man with big features and a big intimidating voice. His grey suit – one of a series of low fastening, double-breasted affairs – appeared more shabby and wrinkled than ever today. But it suited Wexford, being not unlike an extension of his furrowed pachydermatous skin.”
In this novel we are reminded that Wexford is a married man. He has been working overnight, and finally his wife is forced to disturb him. “´My wife,´ he said. ´Am I dead? Have I forgotten I´ve got a home of my own? She´s run out of housekeeping and she can´t find the cheque book.´ He chuckled, felt in his pocket and produced it. ´No wonder. I´ll have to nip back.´”
An important theme of the story is the old, class-ridden Britain. Wexford meets upper-class people and Oxford graduates with distrust and prejudices, but he cannot refute the vicar´s belief that criminal tendencies are inherited. He asks himself, “If he had been asked to predict the future of such a one as Theresa Painter [the murderer´s daughter], what would he have foreseen for her? … he supposed he would have counted her lucky to have become an anonymous manual worker with perhaps already a couple of petty convictions.” Another aspect of the class theme is the number of children who came down in the world because the provider of the family died untimely.
The 1960s were not a politically correct era, either. In a restaurant, Wexford “took the menu, scowling. ´Look at that, Polynesian chicken. What do they think we are, aborigines?´” Still, Wexford shows more signs of being kind and sympathetic than in the first book.
3) Wolf to the Slaughter (1967)
Important characters are a naive young woman, a man who enjoys toying with sharp knives, plus a wealthy, but immoral woman who disappears. We also come across a new generation of casually dressed people who are into modern music and arts … to be frowned upon by proper citizens. Young police officers are not even what they were, and Mike Burden struggles to hide his envy when Wexford calls the new man at the station, young, besodded Drayton, by his first name.
This is also the book where Mike Burden begins to develop a distinct personality. “The tea was sugarless because Burden preferred it that way, not from motives of self-denial. His figure remained lean naturally, no matter what he ate, and his greyhound´s face thin and ascetic. Conservative in dress, he was wearing a new suit this morning, and he flattered himself that he looked like a broker on holiday.” Whatever Burden may think, he tends to come across as a rather moral and censorious family man. A typical Burdenism, “That means adultery, and a man who´ll commit it once will commit it again.”
Wexford is his elephantine self in a ´hideous grey overcoat which would never be at the cleaner’s during cold spells because it was never cleaned.´ – says Burden. Though not well-dressed, he is the more generous, understanding and imaginative police officer, who even goes to the station on his days off. He fully acknowledges Burden´s talents, however, – perhaps without saying it aloud. Again, there is no information whatsoever about Mrs Wexford, but Wexford tells his young daughter Sheila to invite Drayton to one of her noisy get-togethers.
4) The Best Man to Die (1969)
This story takes off when Jack Pertwee is about to get married, but his best man and very close friend, Charlie Hatton, never turns up. Instead we are properly introduced to Wexford´s family at last.
“Detective Chief Inspector Wexford didn´t care for dogs.” Nevertheless he ends up taking Clytemnestra, a ´grey thing with ears like knitted dishcloths´ for a walk, because his daughter Sheila is preoccupied with her hair.
“´Where did Sheila get it from?´ Wexford said gloomily.
Mrs Wexford was a woman of few words. ´Sebastian.´
´Who in God´s name is Sebastian?´
´Some boy,´ said Mrs Wexford. ´He´s only just gone.´”
Moments later we catch Wexford musing on the looks of his family. “His daughter´s beauty had never ceased to surprise the chief inspector. Sylvia´, the elder married one, was well-built and healthy, but that was the best that could be said for her; Mrs Wexford had a magnificent figure and a fine profile although she had never been of the stuff that wins beauty contests. While he… All he needed, he sometimes thought, was a trunk to make him look exactly like an elephant.”
This admirer of female beauty is less generous when it comes to their inner qualities, however. “Moreover, now that she [the dog] had achieved the heart´s desire for which she had turned on her shameless, neurotic display, she had become detecjed, and walked along meekly, head and tail hanging. Just like a woman, Wexford thought crossly. … When you get what you want you don´t want what you get …”
So we learn quite a bit about the whole family and Wexford as a person in this one, including his fear of lifts. On the whole Mrs Wexford comes across as the little middle-class housewife who neither needs much personality nor a first name. Yet it is clear that she is a patient and phlegmatic person:
“´What would you do,´Wexford said to his wife, ´if I brought a young girl home and offered you a thousand pounds to let her stay?´
´You haven´t got a thousand pounds,´ said Mrs Wexford.”
Reg Wexford may seem more of a male chauvinist than for example Lord Peter Wimsey, but he is also a police officer who has experienced more than his share of crime and violence. Here he speaks out against physical punishment of children:
“Ever heard of the pill? … Having kids is a privilege, a joy, or it should be, and by God, I´ll get the County down on you if I see you strike that boy of yours on the head again!”
Small wonder that this father worries about his beautiful daughter and wishes to see her ´safely married´. Altogether, Reg Wexford begins to look like a real character of flesh and blood though he is still very much a product of a time before new-fangled ideas about youth rebellions and equal rights for women and other minorities.