One February afternoon, young Stella Rivers vanished without a trace. Despite a heavy police operation, no sign was ever found of the young girl, alive or dead. Hope was given up on ever finding her, when five-year-old John Lawrence, also from Kingsmarkham, disappears as well. And then the letters start appearing.
Inspector Wexford and his Sergeant Mike Burden take up the case, but Mike has other things on his mind. Recently returned to work after the death of his wife, he is a complete mess, neglecting his work and his family. But he is about to make an even more worrying choice, one that could put the case, his career and his family at risk.
The sixth book in the Wexford series, this is my entry into Past Offences’ 1971 Reading Challenge. As I’ve intimated, I’m having a Ruth Rendell month on the blog and meant to go a little later in the Wexford books for my second choice, but discovered that I didn’t actually have a copy of the recommended Shake Hands Forever. So I did a quick check and realised that I could kill two birds with one stone with this one.
Difficult one, this one. The mystery is rather clever, making perfect sense and yet still being surprising. I didn’t spot the killer and yet it is logical and also resonates with the real characters that generally populate Rendell’s work. You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you…
Mike Burden isn’t my favourite character at the best of time. He’s seems to be in a permanently bad mood and can generally bit somewhat intolerant of others – see his opinions on the festival goers in Some Lie And Some Die. So when he gets the majority of the page count, and he’s doing some pretty inconsiderate and fairly stupid things, that’s not going to enthral me, I’m afraid. Of course, his actions here are due to his grief, and I hope that I never have to experience the loss that he goes through before this book, so I can’t judge if his actions are believable or not. But they make difficult reading and unfortunately ended up distracting me from the mystery plot in the Wexford strand.
But compare this with the classic mysteries of the time and the development of the character is to be applauded. Wexford, for example, is still suffering from ill-health from an earlier book and Burden’s life moves forward (even if it’s not in an enjoyable way). It’s entirely possible that other readers will resonate with the Burden part – my reaction may be a personal one – and the other part of the book is very good. But I do hope that next time I visit the Wexford canon, the back story will be more agreeable.
So, worth a look, but hard to recommend fully. Anyone else read it and want to chip in?