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.

21 thoughts on “Book review: The Vault by Ruth Rendell

  1. Maxine – Thanks for such an excellent review! I’ve been wondering about this book, and wanting to read it. I’m glad that you found it so enjoyable. You’re quite right that Wexford’s character adds so much to this novel, and I always enjoy the scenes of his family life that are woven throughout the Wexford stories. The puzzles seem well-plotted, too. But I agree about the editing. Those kinds of slipups really take away from a story.

    • Thanks, Margot – yes, I feel the editing did a disservice to the author, which considering her status as a writer, I find very strange.

  2. Ooooooh, this is definitely one I must have. And it will be interesting to meet Wexford in a new setting.

    Too bad about the editing, but as many other readers have noticed, it is not only ebooks that are flawed these days. And I have heard the same lament from a Danish proof-reader: the major publishers cut corners by saving one of the editing processes.

    • Yes, it’s a pity, Dorte. I notice that e-books have a different type of error, though – formatting errors owing to conversion glitches, eg paragraphs running on and line breaks in funny places. What I’ve spotted here is sheer bad (or non) editing which would be there in the print and the e-version (as it’s an error at “source” rather than during format conversion to the e-reader). Quite sad.

  3. Ruth Rendell is one of my very favorite authors, though I have yet to read any of her Wexford novels. She’s so prolific it can be hard to choose what to read by her. I can see I do need to add the Wexford novels to my list. It’s good to hear that the stories are still going strong–sometimes longstanding series tend to get a little weak in the end–pity, though, about the poor editing–that can be an awful distraction from an otherwise good book.

    • This series has stood the test of time pretty well, I think, Danielle – the first was written in 1965! Wexford and Burden’s attitudes have changed dramatically over that time – and though the author sometimes gets a bit preachy about her liberal values, erring slightly too much on the “noble savage” style in various novels, this is not all that much of a bad thing, in my view! The main unrealistic aspect is the number of murders, sieges etc in the Kingsmarkham area over 50 years…..but many long-series authors in fundamentally quiet countries like the UK have to face that particular dilemma!

      • As a budding crime writer myself I’m aware of creating an unrealistic string of murders in a quiet village – but with a good crime novel writer like Ruth Rendell one can overlook such things and enjoy the story! I enjoyed The Vault too – having read most of her novels – despite being left slightly vague as to who exactly was left in the hole and how. My main feeling reading this was a sense of literary deja-vu – that I’ve come across this plot before – did Rendell write this as a short story years ago? Was it dramatised on TV? Did anyone else get this feeling?

  4. I really enjoyed the Vault. With so many established writers no longer producing their best works it was so nice to see Ruth Rendell still has plenty of mileage left in Wexford. He is one of my all tike favourite characters, I didn’t notice the editing mistakes – I’m impressed that you spotted them.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I am not one of those readers or reviewers who goes around looking to nitpick, but these just jumped out at me.

  5. Pingback: The Vault by Ruth Rendell | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  6. Nice review, thanks. I enjoyed the Vault even though this is my first Wexford novel. She really brings the topography and social divides of London to life. One thing niggled me
    spoiler alert
    If Ede and the reader accepts Wexworth’s conjecture – which makes sense – that the four bodies in the coal hole are the young man, his half-uncle, the relative who owns the house and the older woman who’s money and jewelry he stole and that this young man slipped on the wet leaves blanketing the pavers and fell in the coal hole 12 yrs ago…how does the manhole lid get put back on? Did I miss that explanation. Wouldn’t the owners who returned have seen the opening.
    That question just really stayed with me and I may have missed it…thanks

    • That’s a good question, Cara, and possibly indicative of the level of editing (not) applied to this book, as it could be another one of these inconsistencies that I noted (but failed in this case). From memory, I imagine that the owner is presumed to have stuck the cover back on and put the tub of plants on top of it, but as you write, surely they would have looked first? I can’t remember now whether the young man had an associate with him who might have panicked and just put the cover over (John double-barrelled name?). Agreed, it’s an open question!

  7. You were right (of course, is there ever any doubt) that the audio book did make these editing problems a bit difficult to keep track of as it is much harder to go back and check something when listening – though I did manage to find the bit about which owner it was who had taken off the creeper and so I knew it wasn’t me who was having memory lapses. I noticed the tie one as well and a couple of others too.

    As for the book overall yes I thought it quite lovely in some ways, though struggled a little with accepting why the entire police force couldn’t solve this little case on their own but I got over it soon enough. I do wonder if this is it though. Can she possibly insert Reg into any other cases?

    • Can’t imagine remembering all that from audio myself. The Vault has stayed with me and I find myself thinking about Wexford’s walking around London, which came thru like a character in the book. Sort of a parallel journey, his looking back in the past and how London has changed. Especially how Kilburn used to be so Irish…now those Irish pubs I remember going to and singing with everyone…long gone, sad.

      • I think the UK ban on smoking in public places must have played a role in that, Cara – a good law but not popular with the more traditional pub drinker.

  8. Pingback: Review: The Vault by Ruth Rendell | Reactions to Reading

  9. Have to agree lack of proof reading detracted from enjoyment of book. I find it difficult to understand how the name of the murderer in A Sight For Sore Eyes Teddy Grex became Teddy Brex in The Vault.

  10. Pingback: October reading and reviews | Petrona

    • Based on the sloppy editing in the rest of this book, I imagine it is a mistake that nobody bothered to check against the earlier book.

Comments are closed.