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An enjoyable if unexceptional outing for Inspector Wexford
on 6 April 2008
Despite the fact that most of her admirers would doubtless choose one of her other guises (the non-Wexford Rendell books or the Barbara Vine novels) as representing her best work, the Inspector Wexford series remains Ruth Rendell's most popular output. There have certainly been some very good Wexford stories over the forty-odd years since his first appearance, but the conventions of writing a police procedural sometimes seem to stifle Ms Rendell's fervid imagination, which is given free reign in her other books. Obviously both the public and her publishers still want her to produce Wexford novels on a regular basis, but it seems as if her interest in her most famous creation has waned over the years, and in some of her recent Wexfords such as 'Babes In the Wood' it really felt she was writing out of duty and obligation rather than choice. However, the Chief Inspector's last case, 'End In Tears', was a marked improvement, and although 'Not In The Flesh' isn't its equal, I'd still rate it as one of the better Wexford novels of the past decade or so.
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.