Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Putting it in Perspective

The Babes in the Woods, by Ruth Rendell, Read by Nigel Anthony, BBC Audiobooks America, 2003

I think I may have finally put my finger on it.

Regular readers here may have noticed a tendency on my part to run down home grown mystery and thriller novels in favor of those written by our monarchical cousins across the Atlantic. While there is an element of gross unfairness in this generalization, my condemning the lot on a few examples, my criticism, near as I can tell, remains fairly applicable across a wide range of authors. American mystery/detective/thriller writers taken as a group tend to shortchange their characters’ private lives and inner existences in favor of stripped down plot advancement. Every aspect of the story is at the mercy of the riddle or pursuit; even their romantic lives are either cause for suspicion or outgrowths of the crime.

Writers such as Chandler and Hammett used to pull much the same trick, only there was something rather different going on there from today’s kettle of fish. Hammett wrote of a seamy crime underbelly few Americans were aware existed, and he wrote with a journalistic bent, rather straightforwardly without much moralizing. Recent writers of one type have run this ball about as far down the field as they could, harping on anatomical butchery in the serial killer vein. Chandler wrote moody, black humored existential novels that happened to be about crime and detection, and he is closer in spirit to the British for that reason. Stateside, his heirs now write superficial mood pieces along the lines of recently widowed detective haunted by his past in a world gone black tracks murderer through moral sewer that is today’s world.

The most popular practitioners of the British school of murder mystery are writers in the subgenre of the cozy, and these authors take a cue from Agatha Christie and from Raymond Chandler. From Christie they get the light touch, the refusal to become dour moralist-hypocrites like many Americans; from Chandler they get a sense of the greater world around their characters and how crime impacts that world. As one regular reader of mine opined, crime is the catalyst for the novel’s actions, not its sole focus. It allows us to see who these people are, what their secrets are.

Ruth Rendell’s nineteenth Chief Inspector Wexford novel, The Babes in the Woods, opens rather grippingly with a semi-violent kind of exorcism and confession of some kind of pagan cult in a clearing in the woods. From there we pull back to find that southern England is flooding, the rains don’t appear to be letting up, and the good inspector finds his time and attention being divided between his latest case, two missing children and their babysitter, and what damage the flood may do to his home and garden. At the same time, his divorced daughter has begun dating a new man who Wexford absolutely hates.

It is these other elements to the story, more so than the crime investigation at times, that gives us insight into the kind of man Wexford is: methodical, a bit stodgy in that middle-aged male fashion, observant, even-tempered. These traits are on view in the course of his investigations, but their application there is almost mandatory.

The clues that Wexford comes across in the case of his search are miniscule, barely sinister, the kind of clues that exist in life rather than film. There is no bloody dress or broken bladed knife, but rather a t-shirt found floating in the flood. A Learn French website with a vocabulary a bit too suggestive. A bizarre, sex-obsessed Christian cult. Red herrings that turn out to be informative after all, but only in a greater picture sense. The investigation moves at the kind of speed you’d expect in real life as opposed to shocking revelations that kick everything into high gear. Wexford advances through all of this with the same equanimity and poise, alert and aggressive, in the best possible sense of the word.

The novel’s other characters are interestingly drawn portraits as well. The wealthy CEO Peter Buxton amuses and appalls with his ability to be manipulated by his immensely self-centered fashion model wife, Sharonne, and his tic of complicating matters by lying when the truth would serve him better, when there is absolutely no profit to be had by lying.

The father of the missing children, Roger Dale, is perhaps one of the most unpleasant fathers I’ve come across in such a situation. He’s constantly complaining that he has to leave interviews to get back to work, as though his children were no more a bother than a missing pet. His entire attitude toward life is slowly unpacked through his history allowing us to understand — if never sympathize — with his viciousness.

Wexford’s divorce daughter Sylvia’s moving in with a new man provides a minor dramatic scene of domestic abuse, but it’s of a piece with the other elements, feeling fuller, more real. Another writer would have made this subplot a metaphorical clue to the police’s mystery, but Rendell holds it for its own sake. At the same time, why a police investigator doesn’t arrest the man who assaults his daughter, why his daughter doesn’t press charges, is a mystery.

The final summation by Wexford is a bit reminiscent of the final scene at the end of many and many a mystery, high on psychology, filled in with a great deal of information that seems to have been withheld throughout. It’s a bit too much when it comes, a minor flaw in the book, one of mysteries’ greatest weaknesses: the big revelatory speech at the end wherein we get all the facts.

I will remark, too, that it was quite some time before the police investigation got to its solution before I had pretty much the answer as to what had happened. This, in many a mystery, might be a flaw, but here, Rendell is writing more about a character who happens to be an investigator, than a mystery featuring a detective character. This might seem a fine point, but it is important for us to understand what so often makes British mysteries better books. Rendell has started with the man who happens to be a detective, then she has sent him to work, then a crime has been committed, then he gets involved. The process is organic, and for that reason immensely more satisfying.

Reader Nigel Anthony, the actor and BBC voice-over man, delivers a wonderful reading with judicious pacing and a great grasp of all the various types of British accents. Lancashire, Gloucestershire, old time aristocratic public school, Northern Ireland, and so on. His Wexford is a gruff old duffer, his voice going barky at difficult suspects and softer with his wife and daughter. The conversations back and forth between males and females Anthony hurdles like a champ, switching up and down the register without a hitch. It’s a rewarding performance.

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