We’re getting on in years, Ruth Rendell, Reg Wexford and I. I sort of dropped the ball on the Wexford novels, one of the most consistently satisfying police procedural series. I left Reg out there in Kingsmarkham, his Southern English town plagued by a remarkably high rate of violent crime. I must have missed three or four books in which he applied his humanity and his intuition to the puzzle at hand and solved it entirely plausibly. I missed various developments in his family: his actress daughter Sheila’s marriage, his social-worker daughter Sylvia’s third child. Then when I picked up The Vault, I found that Wexford has retired! Not only that, he’s living in London and walking everywhere has taken off his extra poundage. But he’s at loose ends, doesn’t quite know what to do with his time. So he’s happy to be called in as a “consultant” on a murder that baffles the local force. Beneath a patio behind an expensive house in St. John’s Wood, four bodies have been discovered. Not one can be identified, and while two men and a woman seem to have been interred at roughly the same time, one body is much more recent. The home-owner claims he didn’t know the bodies were there. Where do you even start?
Hence Wexford’s intervention. He has time the legitimate force doesn’t, time to noodle around and talk to the neighbors, to observe and cogitate on his long walks through North London. In some ways he’s coming to resemble my beloved Jean-Pierre Adamsberg of the Fred Vargas novels, but Rendell works in a more naturalistic vein than Vargas. While the latter always includes some supernatural element, and you’re aware at all times that you are reading a suspenseful confection of a tale, Rendell is more matter-of-fact. I think that’s what has always given her creepier books their special weird power.
Despite its title, despite its resolution, The Vault won’t inspire nightmares, or even discomfiting reflections about the dark corners of human nature. It’s just efficient, effective entertainment.