A New Lease Of Death by Ruth Rendell

AnewleaseofdeathChief Inspector Wexford’s first murder case, many years ago, was an open and shut case. An old lady, Mrs Primero, was bludgeoned to death in her own home by her handyman, Harry Painter, for a few hundred pounds. There was never any doubt in Wexford’s mind as Painter was sent to the gallows – but someone is digging up the past.

The Reverend Archery’s son is engaged to be married to a beautiful intelligent girl – Harry Painter’s daughter, in fact. Concerned that her father’s violence may be hereditary, he is determined to find the truth about what happened all those years ago. Did Wexford send an innocent man to his death – and is the Reverend Archery going to find much more than he bargained for?

This month is going to be Ruth Rendell month on the blog (well, every other book anyway). The prolific author has been overly neglected by this blog and this reader. A long time ago, I remember enjoying Kissing The Gunner’s Daughter and (I think) Simisola, but for some reason I never returned to the series (or anything else by Rendell). More recently, I enjoyed From Doon With Death (although I think the twist is less surprising that it was when the book was published) but was less fond of Some Lie And Some Die. So I thought to start the month off by going back to the start of the Wexford series – well, book two anyway.

I think it’s safe to say that this wasn’t what I expected from a Wexford novel. In fact I’d go as far as saying that if I’d read this when I was younger, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed it. It’s not a typical mystery by any sense of the word, but as a (hopefully) wiser and certainly more experienced reader, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

So what would have put me off? Well, there’s not a lot of our hero Wexford here. To be honest, he’s much more of a supporting character than I would have expected. The focus is on the Reverend Archery as he doggedly searches for a truth that may well be nothing more than what everyone “knows” to be true – that Painter was a killer. Needless to say, Wexford is not desperately keen to dig up the past and keeps his distance.

What follows is a study of the characters involved as Archery probes deeper and their reactions to his investigations. As things progress in his enquiries, things close to him start to fall apart – it seems that whatever he finds, there is going to be a price to be paid.

It was very hard to see where this was going. Did Wexford send an innocent man to the gallows? Or is there no truth to discover? I genuinely could not see a satisfying way of tying up the narrative and yet Rendell pulls it off with aplomb. I can see the denouement not satisfying the fans of the traditional murder mystery but I thought it was very impressive.

It’s a very brave book – possibly closer to the sort of story Rendell wanted to tell than a standard police procedural – and as only book two in the Wexford series, it shows a writer keen to try new things in the genre. Compare the depiction of troubled youth to Agatha Christie’s Third Girl (written the previous year) and you can see an author who has a genuine feel for how people act and react and she utilises that empathy to great effect here.

It’s been a while since I was this impressed by a book where, to be honest, not an awful lot seems to happen. This was an extremely pleasant surprise and is, quite clearly, Highly Recommended.

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16 comments

  1. I remember this being one of the best of the TV adaptations (with the great George Baker as Wexford), but shamefully I’m not certain if I actually read the book — probably so, because I rollicked through the early Wexfords. Anyway, glad to see you’ve made a discovery, as it were!

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  2. I’m pretty sure I’ve read pretty much all her work, but can’t recall this one…Oh well there are loads of them! She’s fantastic; I must dig out some older ones when at my parents’ at Christmas.

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  3. “It’s not a typical mystery by any sense of the word.”
    ” I can see the denouement not satisfying the fans of the traditional murder mystery …”
    Thus, clearly not for me !
    Though initially I was interested since it seemed similar to Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs.

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  4. This book sounds so much like a Barbara Vine book and yet she didn’t use that pseudonym for another twenty years. So many of the Vine books are all about character lives, family secrets and crimes in the past with very little happening. KING SOLOMON’S CARPET has hardly any plot at all, but is fascinating in its depiction of the youths who ride subway car roofs. And one of the best of the Vine novels (ASTA’S BOOK) is very much about probing into the past for the truth about a crime. Maybe A NEW LEASE OF DEATH was never intended to have Wexford in it and her publisher asked her to add him. She had written two stand-alone mysteries right after FROM DOON WITH DEATH. Maybe this was the book that forced her to create a series.

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