Ruth Rendell is such a great crime novelist, particularly her Chief Inspector Wexford series, started in 1964. Monster in the Box is the 22nd, and is a thoroughly good read. All the books are solid police procedurals, though the earlier novels tended to cover the family and personal issues of the two main characters, Wexford and Burden, whereas the later instalments, now that their children are adults, tend to focus on wider social issues and the effects of globalisation on a small, traditional community.
The Monster in the Box follows the usual theme, but has an added retrospective element. It begins when Wexford notices a man on the street – the man is Eric Targo. Wexford remembers when he was a young policeman on one of his first cases, in which a woman was killed one evening while her husband was out. In that case, the husband was convicted of the crime, but Wexford, then a humble PC, was convinced on an instinctive level that Targo, a neighbour, was responsible. Since then, he’s seen Targo on several occasions over the years- the two men never acknowledging each other but, in their different ways, keeping an eye on what the other is doing.
Wexford’s memories are also tied up with his relationships with women – he recalls Alison, who was his fiancée when he first encountered Targo, and subsequent girlfriends, leading up to his meeting Dora, the woman who was to become his wife and to whom he is still married after very many years. This is a really involving story for anyone who has read this series, with several of the investigations in previous novels neatly but lightly provided as context to Wexford’s memories of his personal life at the time.
None of this holds up the pace and plotting of The Monster in the Box, however. The first part of the novel introduces an Asian family, in particular the sixteen-year-old daughter Tamima, who is very bright but who suddenly decides to leave school and work in a corner store. Both Jenny Burden, her teacher and wife of Wexford’s colleague; and Hannah Goldsmith, the politically correct police liaison officer with various immigrant populations, suspect that the girl is being forced by her family to enter an arranged marriage. The author uses these suspicions to examine attitudes and behaviours to those of other cultures (in several directions), tied into an increasingly tense plot about the girl’s fate.
Mid-way through the novel, a crime is committed, and Wexford has every reason to suspect Targo. It’s a really sad crime: although we know very little about the victim, the author’s economy of style makes the reader truly mourn the loss of a decent person who will be missed by family and friends. Wexford cannot find Targo, so he interviews the man's past and current wives and partners in an attempt to track him down, providing many small insights on modern mores and relationships. Although Wexford has little sympathy with Hannah and Jenny in their conviction that something untoward is going on in the case of Tamima, in a mirroring of the women’s fears, his own old convictions close his mind and blinker him as to what is really going on in his own murder investigation.
The main part of the book is set a few years ago, just before the ban on smoking in public places, a prospect much dreaded by Wexford and Burden as they eat their daily lunch of Indian food in a local pub. After the two cases are resolved, there is a coda set in the present, where we see what happened to some of the characters. The Targo plot is, to my mind, less satisfying than the Tamima plot, partly because we don’t know what makes Targo tick and partly because it is rather obvious to the reader what is going on once Wexford starts his investigation in earnest. But the strength of this author’s writing is such that it does not matter if some elements of the novel are a bit predictable, because it is so full of rich (but lightly presented) detail, with so many very astute observations about the changes in society over the past 50 years during which this series has been written, that one is simply held to the pages, until the last one is turned.