Harm Done


by Ruth Rendell (Doubleday, Canada, 2001)


(This column was first published in the December XX, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


For those who love mysteries, any book by Ruth Rendell is required reading. But she writes two kinds of books: serious psychological thrillers that create a frightening mood and expose the deep emotional scars of individual characters. Most of these books are written under an alternate name, Barbara Vine. I find them hypnotic but strange. That is another way of saying that they are mostly over my head.


My favorite Rendells are characterized by the subtitle of the excellent book I review here: Harm Done: An Inspector Wexford Mystery. They are reasonably straightforward police procedurals with two completely characterized British coppers at the helm: Chief Inspector Reg Wexford and his bright but stumbling assistant Inspector Mike Burden.


Here is just one passage that suggests the quality of this woman's writing. Here Wexford, the father of two daughters, and Burden are lunching in a pub when the bartender refuses to serve a group of women:


"Wexford nodded. He doubted if the women would put up a fight and they didn't. They said no more but turned away and made for the door.


"The licensee called after them, 'You'd best go down the High Street where they don't know where you're from. They'll serve you there till they find out who you are.'


"The black-haired woman turned around and said in ringing tones, 'You bastard!'


"'Charming,' said Honeyman when the door swung to behind them. I wonder if you gentlemen heard that? Ladylike, wouldn't you say?'


"Wexford got up, went to the counter, and having ordered two more halves of Adnams, said that he was a police officer and showed his warrant card.


"Honeyman said rather too hastily, 'I was right, wasn't I? I don't need a reason for not serving people.'


"'You were within your rights, but you must have had a reason and I've been wondering what it is.'


"The licensee filled the two tankards. 'It's on the house.'


"'No, it's not, thanks all the same.' Wexford produced a flyer and put it down with precision. 'We came in here to ask you about the missing girl, Rachel Holmes, but just tell me about those women first, will you?'


"'They live in a house in Kingsbrook Valley Drive, up the road here.' Honeyman's whole manner had changed, becoming obsequious and conciliatory. Even his voice was different, the South-of-England burr replaced by a refined drawl. 'They're what they call battered women, if you know what I mean. Or they say they are. Husbands gave them a little tap when they cut up rough, if the truth were known.'


"'All right, I get the picture. But what have they done to get up your nose?'


"'Let me tell you. There was two of them in here a couple of weeks back, and some poor devil comes in and gets hold of one of them, asks her to come home, she's left him with the kids, if you please. Well, of course, she's not going to do as he asks, is she? Don't suppose she ever has. So she struggles and gives him a push and he starts slapping her around, which he was driven to, and then the other one joins in, banging on his back with her fists, and then I had to intervene. Naturally, as I'm sure you'll agree, out you go, I said, the lot of you, and don't come back. Actually, I regret having to put him out, he seemed a decent fellow. You know something? Well, of course you do. When folks got married in the old days, the woman used to have to say she'd obey him. Pity that was ever changed, if you ask me.'


"'I don't know that I do ask you, Mr. Honeyman,' Wexford said blandly. 'I'm rather inclined to think I wouldn't want your advice on anything much.' He watched Honeyman blink his eyes and slightly recoil. 'But you could take some. You'd be well advised to call us next time a decent fellow slaps a woman around on your premises. And now perhaps you'd like to tell me if to your knowledge this girl has ever been in here.'"


The main plot line of this book revolves around a weak-minded 16-year-old girl, Lizzie Cromwell, who claims that she was abducted and held in a vacant building. All the evidence contradicts her claim. Remarkably, within days another young woman, Sanchia Devenish, this time a bright college student, vanishes similarly, also to turn up mere days later.


Complicating these short-term disappearances is the pregnancy of Lizzie, another missing person, Rachael Holmes, the return of the pedophile, Thomas Orbe, just released from prison, and Wexford's daughter Sylvia joining those women who deal with wife-battering. The community boils over:


"The men on the forecourt coaxed the crowd back, easing them through the gates and out onto the pavement. The chanting had stopped, had died away to a low muttering.... Wexford was about to shut the window. Instead he opened it wider and looked down.


"DS Ted Hennessy had come out of the double doors and was crossing the forecourt toward the gates. To make the threatened arrests? Or simply because at that moment, previously out of sight and earshot in the back of the building, he had come out in all innocence for some quite other purpose? Afterward Wexford bitterly regretted having taken his eyes from the protesters to look at Hennessy and thus having missed seeing what he was later told had happened. He saw the thing loop out of the crowd, though, saw it leave an unidentifiable hand, and he cried out, too late, 'Watch out! Get down on the ground!'


"The bottle was alight, he saw the thin sheet of flame as it flew and, although it was well below him, ducked, dragging St. George with him to the floor. If he hadn't, the explosion would have knocked him off his feet. It was thunderous, deafening, a roar rather than a crash, a great hissing sound like a tornado sucking up air. But not loud enough to drown the scream from the forecourt. A horrible cry it was, scarcely human, the noise you imagined an animal dying by violence might make....


"Wexford got to his feet. Broken glass was everywhere, crunching under his shoes. The window was gone. Below him a car on the forecourt was burning, a column of flame hissing up into the blue air....


"It was too late to do anything for the man who had been close to that car. He had disappeared. He was in that inferno, burning along with the metal and the chrome and the leather, somewhere inside that hissing blaze, that eddying spiral of white smoke and black smoke, and the breath-snatching stench of burning petrol."


There is rarely action like this in a Rendell novel but when it occurs, as here, she captures our emotions. We're in the hands of a master.-- Gerry Rising