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Ruth Rendell - Not in the Flesh
on 20 August 2008
Searching for truffles in a local wood, a man and his dog unearth a human hand. That hand eventually turns into an entire skeleton when the police dig up the surrounding ground. An entire skeleton robed in a decaying purple sheet, a cracked rib the only sign that the body might have met a death by violence. Investigations reveal that the body has been interred since a trench was dug 11 years ago in order to prepare to build houses the planning permission for which was later denied. However, the identity of the corpse remains a complete mystery. Then, a second body is found in a nearby abandoned house, and that has been there for many years as well...
Not in the Flesh is something like Rendell's 56th book, her 21st Wexford story. So far, the reviews I have seen have not been kind to it. Some of their criticisms are valid: there's some sloppiness (for example, Wexford on one page putting his faith in hunches and the next condemning intuition), and in tying up one plot point in the final pages she leaves another more vital one (a motive for one of the murders, no less!) completely open), and some lazy plotting whereby character's lives are handily furnished with significant events which allow them to remember a specific day eleven years ago.
However, other criticisms aren't. The moaning about Wexford not aging (every review comes concomitant with a snide comment that Wexford should be ancient or his daughters over 60) seems childish, lazy reviewing picking on easy targets. Since when has real-time been a particular concern of much crime-fiction? Rendell has been penning these temporally static Wexford novels for over 40 years, in that time proving herself one of the all time great crime-writers, and that static-ness hasn't been an issue whatsoever or stopped her massive reputation at all. Crime fiction of this kind - that which harkens back to the "Golden Age", has never had its concern in passing time accurately, and everyone knows that. The detectives are there to pivot the plot around - it may be a bit mechanical but that is what a lot of that kind of crime fiction is. It's Rendell's great talent that it has never seemed mechanical in these Wexford novels. It is a little unfair to use as a criticism what is almost a staple, underlying rule of the form. It is hardly plausible to change the style of a series half-way through in any case. Some writers age their detectives now, in away that is very realistic, but these other kinds of detective fiction are not supposed to be a mirror of reality (a commentator, perhaps, but not a mirror). It's a mistake to fall into the trap of thinking that all fiction should be thus.
Instead, though, Wexford is allowed to be a kind of social comparison meter of late, contrasting the past with the contemporary. And this is one of several areas where these Wexford novels are still very effective, in the clash of past - in Wexford - and present - in the cases and people he deals with. Yes, he may seem outdated, but that's entirely the point: he couldn't be otherwise, and even though he doesn't age physically his views, as a person who witnessed the passage of previous decades, if only in fiction, are entirely realistic. This is a trap that this form creates, especially when the series goes on to be such a long one, but Rendell deals with it as well as it's possible to, I think. She credits Wexford with the views which a man of his character and age would, almost of necessity, have. And the fact that she's not a particularly judgemental writer of her characters views, she just presents them as they are, means that it's often very hard to work out where she herself stands, which may be where some of the criticism comes from (one reviewer attributed Wexford's views to Rendell, which, of this pilates-doing flash-disk-using author, I know to be ridiculous). My point, basically, is this: it would be more ridiculous if things were otherwise.
Indeed, sharp insights into society and people are still heavily on display here, and are one of the factors which make this book a very worthwhile read. Always a staple of the Rendell novel, they are on show here as much as ever, as she writes piercingly about her characters, their views, motivations, actions, and the world that shapes them. Another immense strength of this book is its subplot (about the problem of female circumcision in Somali immigrants), which Rendell writes about with passion, immediacy, and drive. However, Rendell seems so engaged with this, and writes so grippingly about it as a result, that the main plot seems almost in its shadow, in terms of the writing and in the author's interest in it. Certainly, it is the subplot which had the largest effect on me, and is the part I recall in most detail.
Rendell's job in these Wexford novels has always been to provide a satisfying mystery, with her own added extra being the startling observations about the world we live in, it is has never been her job for them to be wholly plausible or realistic in all their aspects (Wexford's aging; the book extracts it seems impossible could be finally long enough to provide a full-length-book, etc.) and there is no reason why they should start receiving criticism for that now. (Indeed, it is not the job of any detective fiction to provide a 100% accurate account of the world, and never has been. If some examples of it choose to, then fair enough.) Internally they make sense, and she provides a satisfying, well-structured mystery. Not in the Flesh, apart from a few minor hiccups, accomplishes this task with ease. It isn't her best, it isn't even as good as the last excellent Wexford, End in Tears, but it's still damn good.