Book review: The Vault by Ruth Rendell

The Vault
by Ruth Rendell
Hutchinson, 2011.

The twenty-fourth novel in the Wexford series is, as ever, a pleasurable and absorbing read. We now have to call the series simply “Wexford” as the chief inspector has finally retired from the Kingsmarkham police force, and as The Vault opens he and his wife Dora are living in the converted coach house in the grounds of his actress daughter Sheila’s expensive Hampstead (north London) home for a change of scenery. Wexford spends much time walking around London in a (successful) attempt to lose weight, but inevitably is a little bored and hence is pleased when he bumps into an old acquaintance from the force, Tom Ede. Ede is now a senior policeman and has become stuck on an investigation, so asks Wexford to be an unofficial advisor.

The case concerns an upmarket “cottage” in St John’s Wood, in central north London. Orcadia Cottage is the subject of a well-known painting which was commissioned by the house’s owner some years ago, and which featured his to-be wife. Subsequently, the two divorced and the house was bought and sold twice, all three sets of owners being pretty rich people prone to extensive holidays abroad. The present owner, Martin Rokeby, decided to create an underground room (as is so common nowadays in London where property prices are astronomical, moving is expensive in itself and space at a premium). During this process, he made the horrific discovery of four bodies in the cellar – it is the attempt to identify these bodies, and hence find out how they got there and who was responsible, that has run into the ground so to speak. Wexford, accompanied by Ede or one of his junior colleagues, carries out the kind of classic investigation familiar to readers of crime fiction, and here told by one of the best living exponents of this genre. Woven in with the plot are Wexford’s inner thoughts, often about London as he walks its streets, but also his views on the people he encounters and on society at large.

Another plot soon intrudes – Wexford’s other daughter, Sylvia, who lives near Kingsmarkham, is attacked and stabbed in her car while driving her young daughter home. Not only is this event deeply shocking to the family, but it soon turns out (as revealed to Wexford by his friend Burden, who now has Wexford’s old job) that the attacker was no stranger to Sylvia. Wexford’s concerns about his daughter distract him from the Orcadia Cottage case, but eventually he returns to it and, largely by the time-honoured device of repeatedly interviewing neighbours and anyone else who may have had a connection to the property, in the hope that one of them will remember or reveal previously undisclosed information, comes up with a crucial clue that eventually allows the case to be solved.

Although in some ways this novel provides a traditional, old-fashioned plot for readers (albeit with some very nice character sketches, in particular of a cleaning woman from the Ukraine), in another it is a refreshing take on the way the world is changing as seen through the eyes of someone who is trained to be highly observant, has lived for a long time, and whose introspections are certainly stimulating to the reader. Wexford is an extremely well-established character in the author’s mind, and what is more a character whom the author likes very much (this affection infuses the book and gives it a real heart). He provides a roundness to the book which in other hands would be a simple puzzle, but here is something more than that. In summary, this is a lovely read – one does not even have to have read the previous books to enjoy it, which is quite a tribute for the 24th book in a series – but it’s probably best enjoyed if you already have some prior knowledge of Wexford and his family, in particular his daughter Sylvia and her rather up and down relationship with her father.

I do have a gripe about this book, which is that it is poorly edited. There are times when Wexford asks a question about something he hasn’t been told about yet. We are twice introduced to Ede’s tie, and we are given two different residents’ names as the person who chopped down the creeper growing up the wall of Orcadia cottage. For a bestselling-level novel from a major publisher, this is indefensible.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of The Vault are at: The Independent (another editing error, the definite article in the book’s title is missing from the review), The Evening Standard (a nice review that picks up the origin of this plot from one of Rendell’s earlier books – which I have either forgotten or not read), the Bookbag and Mostly Fiction book reviews.

The Telegraph has a nice interview with the author, discussing The Vault and more.

Wikipedia on the author and her books.