A New Lease of Death by Ruth Rendell
aka The Sins of the Fathers
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Inspector Burden decides to call on a person of interest]
The front door was closed but the latch was down. He coughed and walked in.
In the back room a plastic transistor was playing pop music. Elizabeth Crilling sat at the table reading the Situations Vacant in last week’s local paper and she was wearing nothing but a slip, its broken shoulder strap held together with a safety pin.
‘I don’t remember inviting you in.’
Burden looked at her distastefully. ‘D’you mind putting something on?’ She made no move but kept her eyes on the paper. He glanced round the dismal, untidy room, and from the various miscellaneous heaps of clothes, selected something that might have been a dressing gown, a pink floppy thing whose flounces recalled withered petals. ‘Here’ he said, and he wondered if she were not quite well, for she shuddered as she put the dressing gown round her. It was far too big, obviously not her own.
observations: This is a 1967 book for Rich Westwood’s year-of-the-month meme - you can read more about it on Rich’s blog Past Offences here. The rules are simple: read and review a crime book first published in that year, or watch and review a film (and anyone is welcome to take part – do join in).
The first question is – is this a 1967 book? All the references say yes, and that it was Rendell’s second Wexford novel. When I was half-way through it I was dismayed to see that the copyright notice in my copy said 1969. But I think that may be wrong – I’m going to assume it is from 1967.
The dismay was partly because this really isn’t a very good book at all, so I wouldn’t want reading it to have been a complete waste of time. It is a very crude effort, and the basic final plot twist seems to scream itself out from very early on: it’s an idle idea that might have made a reasonable short story, but has been stretched out to a novel while everybody catches up.
Wexford is particularly rude and unpleasant, and Inspector Burden isn’t much better. The scene above is quite shocking – he walks into this woman’s home via the backdoor, without even knocking, and then objects to how she is dressed? Really?
The basic setup is that a clergyman finds his son is about to marry the daughter of a murderer. He is worried about heredity, so he would like to prove her father innocent. The case was Wexford’s first murder investigation, and he is stubbornly sure that they got the right man. The vicar does some investigating of his own.
This is all well and good, but the morals and feelings of the characters are hard to take. The vicar says ‘If Charles goes ahead and marries [the murderer’s daughter] I shall have to leave the church.’ I just sat and stared at this – surely this makes no sense at all? On all kinds of levels? He is a member of a Christian church, which preaches forgiveness, and there is no CofE doctrine that blames the innocent daughter of a sinner. In addition, it is not generally known who her father is – she has a different name – so his highly un-Christian attitude would be his alone.
The dialogue is unreal, stilted, unconvincing. The snobbishness is excruciating. The vicar (given all this above about the impossibility of his son marrying the wrong person) has the nerve to criticize someone else who worries about ‘respectability’ too much.
The attitudes shown do not seem to belong in 1966, when the story is set. A young woman says she can’t go into a church wearing jeans. Everyone is terribly surprised that wages and prices from 1950 (when the original killing happened) are very different from 1966, they try to make direct comparisons.
The book has the advantage of being short, and readable enough. Rendell was supposedly trying to show the modern world, but no-one in the book acts like a real person.
A sad disappointment.
Having criticized the attitudes as not being true to the time, I have to give Rendell credit for highly authentic other details, making it very much a book of 1967: the misery of British small towns, bad coffee, hotels that don’t want to serve you food, dinner dances, horrible cafes, everyone smoking the whole time. And, a drink driver knocks down and kills a pedestrian, and no-one seems to take that very seriously. All of it all too convincing.
The picture is a lingerie advert from a few years later – I decided to give Crilling something nicer than Rendell did.
This is why I like her early books. For all the wrong reasons.ReplyDelete
I thought it was useful to be reminded just how horrible the social life, eating out and entertaining was in this country. Things have got better!Delete
Moira - I am sorry to hear that this one was such a disappointment for you. Interesting how this series has developed and evolved over the years. I think your very well-taken points are the reason so many people say that Rendell has gotten a lot better over time (i.e. these first books are not her best). But even so, I'm glad you got a sense of the late '60s from it.ReplyDelete
Yes, there was no comparison with the later Rendell and those great great books. Perhaps she was experimenting with different styles....Delete
Not actually read this one, though again, I bet I saw the TV adaptation with George Baker way back when. Sounds pretty poor - I do prefer the Wexfords from the 70s as I seem to remember them much better!ReplyDelete
I used to watch those too - they were filmed near where I lived. And I think Rendell definitely got better....Delete
love your blog. Sadly, as someone old enough to be around at this time, these views were the views held by many.ReplyDelete
Thanks for commenting: it's depressing to contemplate the attitudes, but we can hope things have changed.Delete
I was about to post exactly what Anonymous has: I can remember those attitudes being all too prevalent in 1967 -- I grinned especially at the memories evoked by your "young woman says she can’t go into a church wearing jeans" line. The idea of criminality being hereditary was still very much around, and taken seriously by some.Delete
I too am not very keen on the Wexfords -- on the whole, I vastly prefer Rendell's other work -- but I've never really noticed her getting too much wrong with her settings.
Agatha Christie often brought in that line about worrying about heredity with murderers - but I always felt with her it was a plot device, here Rendell seems to take it seriously.Delete
I suppose it's possible the young woman just didn't want to go into the church, and used her jeans as an excuse!
Moira: I am sure Crilling would have put on a slip without a broken strap, completed her makeup and gotten out the pearls if she had only known the Inspector was coming.ReplyDelete
Are you sure these characters were not transported from 1867 to 1967?
Based on your commentary I am glad I was living in rural Saskatchewan in 1967. We had considerably more sunshine in our lives.
Thanks for a lovely comment Bill, you made me laugh! I bet you were all much more sensible and down-to-earth.Delete
I haven't read her yet, but intend to. Probably not this one then.ReplyDelete
Definitely go for the later ones, and perhaps the standalones - you'd like them better. And you have to read her some time - none in the tubs?Delete
Moira, if you're shocked that a church in the 60s still frowned on women in pants....well, the church I grew up in (in the 80s) still frowned on women in pants--a very conservative church, granted. But I don't think it would have been all that uncommon in the 60s (despite the cultural changes going on in the secular world).ReplyDelete
Interesting, thanks Bev, but I should give you some more detail: this was a young woman saying she couldn't go in and look round an empty CofE (no service going on) church - they were looking for historical details - because she was in trousers. She was otherwise shown as a modern, uptodate young woman (university student in jeans) and I found that self-censorship very unlikely.Delete
Well, I went to high school in the 60s and we had to wear skirts to school, even when it was 10 degrees -- in New York City. I am so glad that rule was erased off the books.ReplyDelete
Yes at my school the girls could never have worn trousers, let alone jeans. Practicality didn't enter into it.Delete
Moira, Ruth Rendell is one of a few authors who remains elusive in spite of being right there in front of me. Somehow I'm just not able to get round to reading her books. It's my loss, of course.ReplyDelete
One of these days you might get the urge Prashant - she wrote a lot and they are widely available, as you say.... an easy choice some time.Delete
I had the problem with publication dates happen to me twice since I started doing Rich's meme, but luckily I really enjoyed both books and was glad I had read them mistakenly... and moved on to other books for the meme. I looked around and lists of Wexford books seemed to place this book in both 1967 and 1969 willy nilly.ReplyDelete
Sorry to hear you did not like this book. I read all the Wexford series through the 1980's, then stopped reading mysteries in the 90's, then picked them up starting with The Babes in the Wood (I think). I remember liking the earlier ones but that was a long time ago and I do find my reading tastes have changed. I have copies of all of her books to re-read. I hope I will not be disappointed. Oh well.
I think what surprised me was that I thought she was trying to get away from those old-fashioned, snobbish, class-bound mysteries - and this was exactly that! I have enjoyed many Rendell books, but there's not many I'd say I loved....Delete
Nothing to do with this post whatsoever, but I've just read about some great knickers in Patricia Wentworth's Through the Wall, including Miss Silver's own knickers; and a bit about having to knit one's own underthings as too fat for shop ones. The mystery is a bit ho-hum, but there's a great cat.ReplyDelete
OMG - Miss Silver's knickers! What a find. I am downloading it to my Kindle even as I write this, I had to chase it up even before I answered you....Delete
What a sad pair you make!Delete
Col, you are just jealous that YOU were not the one who found Miss Silver's knickers for me.Delete
He who laughs last etc.........I'm wearing them!Delete
I nearly fell off my chair laughing at that.Delete
Oh dear Col - I think she's doing Miss Silver's admonitory cough. You are in trouble.Delete
What a book! I concur with all of your sentiments Moira - and then some. It feels preposterously old-fashioned to me and I could cheerfully slap Henry Archer into next week...and I'm not normally a violent lady :)ReplyDelete
Lots of clothes though and as you say it's blessedly short.
Yes, and I did find it weirdly readable. I love your line about slapping Henry - literary criticism at its finest! And yes, that's how I felt about him too.Delete