I came to this new Wexford title with some trepidation. I'd thought the last, Not in the Flesh, was pretty poor, with its shaky storyline and cringe-making subplot about female circumcision (cringe-making because of the quite condescending descriptions of the Somalian girl, not because of the procedure!).
However, I'm delighted to say that The Monster in the Box is a return to form. To be more correct, it's a return to form in some respects, something quite new in others. In what ways is it new? For a start, we go back in time to the days of Wexford's early career and the early stages of his relationship with Dora. These sections of the book are by no means boring filler: there's a particularly shocking scene in a Cornish cottage, for instance (and check out how Rendell plays with the reader's expectations with that one!). This story deals, too, with obsession, putting me in mind of some of the "straight" Rendell novels. It's also a particularly creepy book: the subject of Wexford's obsession, the monster he's trying to keep in the box, is particularly unnerving, almost a supernatural - or at least animalistic - figure.
The story is short, fast-paced, gripping, and in some ways bizarre (I enjoyed the runaway lion).
I think Rendell is better in this one on the race issues, though she's always sailed dangerously close to a condescending wind (so many of her asian characters have "noble" or "elegant" manners or profiles.)
One more point to note, and this is very strange. The novel seems to be set in the late 1990s. Can anyone explain why? I'm scratching my head about this one.
Advice for anyone disappointed by Wexford/Rendell's performance recently: give the pair another shot. This one's a really great performance.
I am a big fan of Ruth Rendell so it gives me no pleasure at all to write how much I actually disliked the Monster In the Box. It is actually so bad that it doesn't read like Rendell at all!How can such a gifted writer have created something which is both clumzy and boring, repetitive and annoying! It doesn't make any kind of sense. Do we expect Wexford to tell the story of his obsession about Targo to Burden in installments? No, we don't. Do we deserve the story to be dragged as it is, again we don't. Do we care about it one jot? Indeed we don't. But the worst part, as far as I am concerned, is Burden's wife and the young policewoman 's treatment of the Asian family. Surely there is a case for harassment in there! Reading about it was infuriating and yet I am not particularly PC myself but that some nosey parkers pretending to be open minded should go to such lengths, I couldn't take it! It made me want to scream at the writer because it was so lumpy, unbelievable, caricatural, conceited.....A dreadful book to be forgotten or disposed of...
The Monster in the Box is the twenty-second of Ruth Rendell’s books to feature Chief Inspector Reg Wexford and here he is, in the present, although nowhere near as old as he’d have to be if he’d aged in line with his first appearance back in 1964 in From Doon With Death!
Pleasingly in what turned out to be Wexford’s last outing as a paid policeman, although he does appear retired in both The Vault and No Man’s Nightingale, he gives the reader an insight into his early years right back to before he got married and his belief that a man who has stalked him on and off over the years from that time has reappeared. I was happily carried away with this nostalgia for times gone by which is wickedly edged with something far more sinister by way of this maybe stalker Eric Targo. Wexford’s first challenge is to be certain that it is the same man, as previously Targo sported a livid birthmark on his neck which he kept covered with a scarf and the man he’s recently encountered doesn’t have one, but then medical advances have been made in the intervening period. Wexford is concerned enough that he opens up to his close friend DI Burden over wine and a minimal amount of cashew nuts, for the first time that he believes that not only has Targo followed him through the decades, but that he is a serial killer. Wexford only reason for keeping this information secret is that he has not one scrap of evidence, but he’s determined to find some now!
The tone of the book is entirely in keeping with the look back over the years and never more so than when describing the investigation into Elsie Carroll’s death which makes you realise just how unsophisticated the field was back then. Elsie’s husband John is tried for the murder but released on a technicality but Wexford suspects the killer was Targo despite his seemingly cast-iron alibi. Although the tone is reminiscent of older generations throughout time with the ‘well of course we didn’t have….’ And the ‘…. Hadn’t been invented then’ types of phrases the most evocative parts of the past are in the descriptions of the evenings spent by those in the neighbourhood at the time of Elsie Carroll’s death.
Intertwined with this storyline is one concerning Burden’s second wife, Jenny, and the new DS Hannah Goldsmith who are concerned that something untoward is happening with one of Jenny’s former pupils Tamima. This is a complex storyline includes a DS who has done all the awareness training and the way a Muslim family bring up their daughter makes for uncomfortable reading not because of the cultural sensitivities but the ham-fisted way the women go about trying to prove that there aren’t any, the result is that this aspect can either be viewed as an inspired way of trying to enlighten her readers to the obvious conflicts or as being borderline offensive. I took the former viewpoint but I’m not sure everyone would.
As always Ruth Rendell provides her most solid of policemen with a solid mystery, and a satisfying read. Granted, this isn’t up to the standard of some of her greatest books, but there is a proper mystery, the book moves forward at a steady investigative pace and the backwards look over Reg’s personal life was a really lovely and welcome touch.
There were so many mistakes in the transcription of this book the ebook format it made it difficult to read. I know the ebook version is cheaper but it should be of the same editorial standard as the paperback or hardback versions. There is no way that a traditional book would have been sold with this many errors. Amazon take note, shoddy ebooks like this will damage the uptake of the Kindle.