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.