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Not in the Flesh: (A Wexford Case) Hardcover – 2 Aug 2007
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The wait is over: heres a new Wexford novel. And Not in the Flesh is one of the sharpest, most astringent outings for Ruth Rendells doughty copper in some time. Rendell's studies in dark psychology (which have at their centre characters who appear only in individual novels) are the most highly regarded among aficionados of her wok, but the unalloyed good feeling prompted by a fresh appearance for her long-term protagonist Inspector Wexford is something to be savoured, and we are once again in safe hands here.
A man taking his dog for a walk in a wooded area stumbles across a grim object -- a severed human hand. The body to which it belongs has been hidden from sight for years, as Wexford subsequently finds out. Of course, with the uncountable numbers of missing persons in police files, Wexford is well aware it will be an uphill struggle tracking down the identity of the body. Shortly after, in the basement of a disused cottage, another victim of violence is discovered, and Wexford and his reliable team find themselves attempting to discover connections between the murders.
Readers might wonder if the production of these utterly surefire Wexford books is an east task for Rendell (as opposed to the rigours of the grimmer psychological novels written under her own name, or the nom de plume Barbara Vine), but there's never a sense of the author on autopilot; this is professional, well-honed, engrossing stuff. --Barry Forshaw
"Rendell's genius with the whodunnit form works to make everything doubly vital. Without being remotely didactic, she is the pre-eminent thematic novelist of her day... Jane Austen would have approved of Rendell's cliché-dissecting wit... It's impossible to imagine her writing anything devoid of import. She is one of the rare breed that make you feel privileged to be around at the same time as they are. She doles out death so that we might feel more alive." (New Statesman)
"If Ruth Rendell were not slotted into the category of writer of mystery novels, she would have won the Booker long ago" (Gerald Kaufman)
"Ruth Rendell's books are not only whodunits but whydunits, uncovering the motive roots of murder" (Mail on Sunday)
"Gripping and memorable." (Sunday Times)
"Probably the greatest living crime writer in the world" (Ian Rankin)
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The central crime - the discovery of two bodies on a plot of land which have remained undiscovered for a decade - is intriguing, although perhaps the motive behind the crimes won't come as a shock; I had a rough idea of what lay behind the mystery long before the Chief Inspector himself did. Nevertheless, it manages to keep the reader engrossed until the end. As usual, there is a sub-plot which involves Wexford's family, and this time it concerns the horrifying practice of female circumcision. Ms Rendell handles the subject as thoughtfully and sensitively as long-time fans would expect, and the climax to this story strand is nail-biting. However, usually these side issues are cleverly woven in to the main plotline, and that just isn't the case here. As well-written and important as it is, it still feels tacked-on and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the book.
My other problem with 'Not In The Flesh' is the tiresome carping about 'political correctness'. I really expected better of Ms. Rendell than this. The issue of over-zealous political correctness was covered by many other authors years ago when it might actually have been considered a newsworthy topic. These days the only people who use the phrase are lazy journalists who work for right-wing tabloids like the Mail and the Express - and even they are only pandering to their readers' prejudices. I have always admired Ruth Rendell's strong stand against all kinds of social injustice, and to find her wasting her words on a non-issue that only the most small-minded of Middle Englanders would consider worth mentioning is both disappointing and embarrassing.
Still, despite these misgivings, 'Not In The Flesh' remains a mostly enjoyable read and I'd still recommend it to anyone who liked previous Wexford novels. Nevertheless, I must confess to wondering whether it wouldn't be better for the Chief Inspector to finally hand in his warrant card for good, leaving his creator free to concentrate on her other, more interesting work.
But this novel, competent though it is, could be set in any period. There's nothing about it that says 2007, except for the two tacked-on themes of female circumcision and political correctness. Rendell's social comment is usually made integral to the mystery, but this time they really don't fit.
It feels as though the Wexford series is getting tired now, and not just because Wexford has been on the brink of retirement for at least 20 years. This novel simply doesn't have the relevance that used to be characteristic of the series.
I've enjoyed a number of the early Wexford novels and, after a break of few years since my last one, I bought this without hesitation believing it would be just as good as I remembered them to be. This one, however, was a huge disappointment.
The story appears cobbled together and, as other reviewers have said, I guessed the outcome long before the end. The constant referrals to `political correctness' is infuriating and the terrible `PC' character, constable Hannah, made me want to hurl the book across the room and give up. The sub-plot about female genital mutilation had nothing whatsoever to do with the story and just felt stuck in. Maybe it was to make a point or raise awareness of the issue but I don't think an Inspector Wexford novel is the place to do it.
If this is a taste of what's to come with future Wexford novels then maybe the good Inspector should retire.
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