Inspector Reg Wexford is one of those fictional detectives who ages very slowly. Poirot & Adam Dalgleish also come to mind. Their authors had no idea that their series characters would prove so popular & they all began life as middle-aged (or almost middle-aged) men. The first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, was published in 1964, & 50 years later, Reg is still solving crimes. He has retired, but he’s still able to lend a hand because of his friendship with Mike Burden, once his Sergeant, but now promoted to Detective Superintendent. Whenever I read a Wexford novel, & I’ve read them all, I always hear George Baker & Christopher Ravenscroft in my head as Wexford & Burden. The TV series from the 1980s didn’t have the glossy production values of Inspector Morse, but I was very fond of it.
Wexford’s idea of the perfect retirement project is reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He’s constantly thwarted in his attempts to settle down to his book, however, by his garrulous cleaner, Maxine. Wexford’s wife, Dora, is able to escape Maxine by going shopping or visiting, leaving Wexford to her constant stream of chat. One morning, though, Maxine tells him about the murder of local vicar, Sarah Hussein. Maxine discovered the body of the vicar, strangled in her living room. Mike Burden asks Wexford if he would like to have a look at the murder scene & he is quick to escape from Maxine. Wexford is also missing the job & is grateful to be asked to sit in on interviews & visit crime scenes. I’m not sure how believable this is, by the way. Would a retired detective be allowed to be so involved in official police work? I was willing to accept that it was possible, though, because the case is intriguing & Wexford wouldn’t be able to do much investigating without the knowledge he gains from tagging along.
Sarah Hussein wasn’t universally popular. Some of her congregation resented the fact that she was a woman; she was of mixed race, & she was a widow with a daughter who had been born some time after the death of her husband. There’s a mystery about the father of Sarah’s daughter, Clarissa. Clarissa is almost eighteen & her mother promised to tell her about the circumstances of her birth on her birthday but now, of course, this won’t happen. Sarah seems to have few close friends & no family apart from Clarissa. The motive for the murder seems obscure but Wexford soon becomes intrigued by Sarah’s past & his investigations lead him to think that the answer may lie in Sarah’s past & the circumstances of Clarissa’s birth.
Mike Burden, however, is looking at suspects in the present & much closer to home. The vicar’s Warden, Dennis Cuthbert, disliked Sarah for her sex & her race, & the fact that she converted to Christianity from Hinduism as a teenager. She had also abandoned the Book of Common Prayer for the Alternative Service Book. Duncan Crisp is a gardener employed at the house next door to the Vicarage. He was in the garden on the day Sarah was killed but claims to have seen nothing. Burden is unconvinced by Wexford’s theories that Sarah’s past is crucial to the murder but Wexford follows his own lines of enquiry.
It’s been a few years since I read a Ruth Rendell novel & I enjoyed No Man’s Nightingale very much. Rendell is so good at building up a picture of the victim who, in this case, we never see alive. She’s dead at the beginning so we only learn about her through the memories of others. Reg Wexford is his usual, spiky, opinionated self. I hate to think how grouchy he would be if he wasn’t allowed to meddle in the odd murder. It’s the combination of a police procedural with a private investigator novel as Reg goes off on his own tack while Burden & his team follow more conventional lines as well as the chance to catch up with old friends that I found so satisfying.