>See post 1 here.
This second post should have covered the 1970s, but as I am – apparently – unable to skim novels I like and write about them in a few words, I will begin with these three from the early 1970s.
5) A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)
The ´lady of the manor´, Mrs Elizabeth Nightingale, is killed in a true Upstairs-Downstairs setting. Apart from old gardeners and loyal factotums another type of servant plays a certain role in this one: the au pair. Au pairs in British crime fiction of this period invariably come from Scandinavia or Northern Europe. Katje (called Catcher by the old housekeeper) is from Holland, and though slightly overweight, obviously very attractive. Her grammar is horrible, but this fact does not seem to prevent her from getting acquainted with the male part of the population.
Inspector Mike Burden concludes that Katje is immoral so why not criminal as well, while Inspector Wexford and her middle-aged employer do not quite know how to resist the youth and charm of “a young girl who enjoys anxiety-free sex.” So Wexford finds himself struggling hard to keep a professional distance, “something between God and a robot, tempered with avuncular geniality.”
Through the first hundred pages or so Wexford is his usual, occasionally spiteful self. Near the end of the book we see new sides to the chief inspector, however. “Wexford walked to church with his wife and left her at the gate. Without any religious feeling himself, he sometimes went to morning service to please her.” What surprised this reader was not Wexford´s confessing to having no religious feelings, but this is probably the first time he has shown any consideration for his wife´s wishes.
Another new side (and quite amusing when re-reading it in 2009) is Wexford´s fear that Burden is taking over the case. Humbly, he quotes the Book of Job, “Our young men shall see visions, he thought, and our old men shall dream dreams.” His feeling of inadequacy does not last long, however, as this conversation with Mike Burden proves.
“´Yes, you were right there and right about a lot of things,´ Wexford said, adding in a sudden burst of confidence: ´I don´t mind telling you, I began to think you were right in everything. I thought I was getting old, past it.´
´Oh, come, sir,´ said Burden heartily, ´That´s nonsense.´
´Yes, it is,´the chief inspector snapped. ´I´ve still got my eyesight, I´ve still got some intuition. Well, don´t stand hanging about there all day. We´ve got to make an arrest.´”
6) No More Dying Then (1971)
A little boy disappears on a hot October´s day, called “St Luke´s Little Summer” according to Station Sergeant Camb. The police react promptly as a girl who went missing a few months earlier has never been found.
Not long ago Inspector Burden lost his wife to cancer. This icon of bourgeois respectability tries to cope with his loss, but quite unsuccessfully. “Burden was so thin. The sharp high cheekbones jutted out of his taut skin and his eyes glittered nastily when you glanced at them but they were unbearable when you looked deeper.” Jean´s sister moves in to look after his children and his home, and soon a snappy, swearing Mike Burden takes her for granted, neglecting his family completely while working frantically. Something must happen, so Burden loses his head over the missing boy´s beautiful, but disorganised and divorced mother, a wretched woman who clings to him for support. With the most unconceiveable partner in the whole Kingsmarkham area, Burden experiences a St Luke´s Little Summer of his own.
Chief Inspector Wexford has worries of his own. His friend and physician, Dr Crocker, has ordained diet and golf on account of Wexford´s skyrocketing blood pressure. “Wexford lapsed from his diet twice a week on average, but he didn´t greatly object to the golf… It got him out of going to church with his wife.” Of course Wexford also worries about Burden who works like an automaton, irritable and distracted, and he even tries to probe into the matter, but when Burden refuses to speak, Wexford thinks to himself “You won´t get any more friendly overtures from me, my lad. Stiff-necked prude. What did he care about Burden´s dreary love life, anyway?” As we all know, Wexford cares quite a lot but as the narrator says, “An emotional scene between two normally unemotional men usually has its aftermath of deep miserable embarrassment.”
7) Murder Being Once Done (1972).
In this novel Wexford and his wife are spending a few weeks with his nephew, Superintendent Howard Fortune, in London. Wexford is a convalescent, and Dr Crocker has put him on a cruel diet so we meet an unusually bored, starved and grumpy chief inspector. Furthermore his haughty nephew cannot be bothered to ´talk shop´ with the old country yokel so obviously, poor Reg Wexford is homesick!
After two desolate weeks, the body of a young woman is found at a cemetery, a discovery which leads to Howard and Reg Wexford realising how much they have misunderstood each other. Having cleared this away, Wexford rebels against his diet plus the women´s well-meant fuss, and begins enjoying life again.
In the midst of all this excitement, Wexford completely forgets to inform Denise and Dora about his whereabouts until they call the police station to report him missing. Upon his homecoming, they let him feel his misdemeanour. “Dora´s manner, when she came down, was injured and distrait, but the chief inspector had been married for thirty years and had seldom permitted petticoat government.”
One can neither say that Dora Wexford plays a major role in this story, nor that this rather dull, bridge-playing shopper is the same woman as we meet in later novels. Still, we get her first name, and a real human being begins to unfold. The following dialogue when Dora wants to know more about a ´mysterious woman´ who phones Wexford is a good example of this new development:
“Oh, Melaine. Just a woman I´m having a red-hot affair with. You know all those times you thought I was over at Kenbourne with Howard?..´ He stopped, caught his wife´s eye. It was admonitory, yet faintly distressed. ´Dora!´ he said. ´Look at me. Look at me. What woman in her right mind would want me?´
´Oh, you.´ He was oddly moved. He kissed her lightly. ´That´s the blindness of love,´ he said. ´Excuse me. I´ll just give my mistress a tinkle.´”
Generally, Wexford feels insecure and physically weak together with Howard´s smart London detectives, but when the case breaks, his spirits rise: “According to Cocker and Dora and their gloomy disciples, he ought to have been dead by now, for he had broken all their rules. He had worked when he should have rested, eaten saturated fats when he should have fasted, gone out at night, worried and today forgotten all about his pills. Why not break one more and be hanged for a sheep?” So if we didn´t know already, we would see here that work is what makes Reg Wexford tick.
Even though Rendell´s whodunnits are hardly seen as hard-boiled by any standard, it is clear that new-fangled ideas about equality have not really hit Kingsmarkham yet, and Wexford´s attitude to his own wife could very well be called ´macho´, especially the remark about ´petticoat regime´. But let us see what happens in the late 1970s.