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It's words that count
on 27 June 2013
Ruth Rendell's "A Sleeping Life" - her 10th Inspector Wexford novel - was published in 1978 and the novel catches the times effectively: there is a tension between traditional values (some endorsed and others sharply put down) and gay rights and second-wave feminism, while spatial divisions also attract Rendell's attention: the boundaries of towns, such as Wexford's Kingsmarkham, are being eroded, while inner London boroughs, such as Kenbourne Grove, are a mix of shabbiness and gentrification. The absence of an original publication date in Amazon's promotion of this novel, highlights the gap between reader's present and the book's. Looking back, the descriptions of domestic interiors are not so different, except that there are no signs of an information world. And it is words and not signs which interest Reg Wexford, and Ruth Rendell.
Wexford is intensely irritated by useless words: "I mean" or "kind of", inserted into the speech of characters. Now, it would be "like". And the solution to the murder of Rhoda Comfrey which opens the novel hinges on an archaic word which he picks up, tangentially, in his daughter's condemnation of just how long it is likely to be before women approach anything like the rights of men. Rendell uses Wexford's instinctive grumpiness at the new and his more thoughtful, if muted, advocacy of liberal political positions to explore social change, while still being an effective page-turner, even for thriller-readers saturated by graphic violence and worse.