Crime: Conjuring banal horrors from human frailty the Ruth Rendell way
The latest, shocking Inspector Wexford mystery is joined by new crime thrillers from Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter author Tom Franklin, The Watchers author Jon Steele and former CIA officer Charles McCarry
Deceptive prose: Ruth Rendell. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
No Man’s Nightingale (Hutchinson, €27.50) is the 24th mystery to feature Ruth Rendell’s iconic Insp Wexford, who refuses to go gently into his well-earned retirement.
Invited by his former subordinate Det Supt Mike Burden to help investigate the murder of the Rev Sarah Hussain, Wexford sets aside his beloved copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and enters the fray once more. A widow and mother to the teenage Clarissa, Hussain was, Wexford tells us, “far from being the only woman ordained priest of the Church of England but perhaps the only one to have been born in the United Kingdom of a white Irishwoman and an Indian immigrant”.
Was religious bigotry the motive for her murder? Such extremism seems unlikely in the quiet market town of Kingsmarkham, but one of the pleasures of Rendell’s novels is the way her deceptively languid prose gradually reveals the turbulent passions that seethe under the placid surface of her genteel settings. The plot appears to meander through various domestic crises – traffic collisions, property disputes, the choice of one religious text over another for the purpose of a sermon – only to erupt into violence that owes its shock value as much to its mundane origins as it does to its lethal consequences. Wexford’s inability to directly affect the murder investigation means the story is unfashionably slow and measured, but Rendell’s ability to conjure banal horrors from human frailty remains undiminished.
Tom Franklin’s wonderful Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was one of the finest novels published in 2010. The Tilted World (Mantle, €24.50), written with his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, is set in the Deep South in 1927 against the backdrop of the Great Mississippi Flood. Ingersoll and Ham are two undercover Prohibition agents who ride into the town of Hobnob, investigating the disappearance of their predecessors, who are presumed to have been bought off or murdered by hillbilly moonshiners.
They carry with them an infant orphaned when his parents attempted to rob a country store, a baby Ingersoll entrusts to Dixie Clay, a woman who has learned to cope with the death of her own child some years ago by throwing herself into her work as the most prolific bootlegger in the county.
What follows is an epic tale of loyalty and betrayal that plays out in the shadows of the artificially heightened levees as a potentially biblical flood threatens to wreak unimaginable devastation across the delta.
The dirty realism that characterised Franklin’s language in Hell at the Breech (2004) and Smonk (2007) is here complemented by Fennelly’s poetic flourishes as she conjures up the surreal, apocalyptic landscape in which Ingersoll and Dixie Clay scrabble for survival, although the most satisfying aspect of the novel is the vivid characterisation as Dixie and Ingersoll struggle to dovetail their respective interpretations of right and wrong.