Rendell’s dear Chief Inspector Reggie Wexford has retired–or has he?

Wexford’s actress daughter owns a home in the posh Hampstead section of London, complete with a carriage house she offers to her parents, where Wexford and his wife Dora are spending time now that the Chief is retired from policing. Trying to fill his days with reading, opera, galleries and walks, he is also trying to cope with missing policing, six months out of service. One of these walks down the Finchley Road leads him to a chance encounter with a bright young detective he knew thirty years ago and instantly recognizes.

But Tom Ede has moved on and is now Detective Superintendent Ede, based at the new Metropolitan Police headquarters in Cricklewood. When Ede promises to phone the next day, Wexford finds himself anxiously anticipating the call. Yet he’s still surprised when Ede indicates he could use Wexford in the role of expert advisor. “Open confession is good for the soul,” said Tom, “and I’ll tell you frankly, I’ve asked for your help because so far we’re getting nowhere fast.”

Despite the lack of renumeration, Wexford agrees when he finds out the particular case Ede wants help with concerns a house in Orcadia Place, where four bodies have been found in an underground vault. Three of the bodies are of vintage variety, and one is new. The house’s new owner had pulled up a manhole cover in the garden with an eye to making an underground room and made the horrific discovery. Readers of Rendell’s 1998 novel A Sight for Sore Eyes will remember this particular house and its grisly climax with three bodies buried, one alive, but now the number is up to four. I hasten to point out that no knowledge of that book is necessary to enjoy this one. But the question for readers of the earlier book will become immediately apparent, as it soon does to Wexford: How did somebody else end up in that chamber? And who knew of its existence?

Wexford’s dogged nature and detecting skills will take him all over London’s neighborhoods as he uses his honed experience to figure out the criminal minds at work here and follows the trail that leads to the original murders over a decade ago. There are neighbors and workers and past owners to be interviewed and investigated. Just when he’s making what seems like progress on the case, a family tragedy brings him back to Kingsmarkham and changes everything. Wexford’s old partner Mike Burden makes his appearance here. Just as that situation looks to be under control, the books powerful resolution brings Wexford himself into physical danger.

This is Rendell at her finest, with masterful plotting and an eye for the details of human nature. Rendell delves into the psychology of her characters as she twists her plots, and twists them again, and that keeps Auntie M reading.

As an aside, it must be noted that many of the Wexford novels were made for television into a fine series called The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, starring George Baker as Wexford. A multi-talented actor and writer, Baker embodied the character, and died last October of pneumonia after a stroke. His third wife, actress Louie Ramsey, had played Dora, Wexford’s wife in the series, and predeceased him in March of 2011. One of Baker’s five daughters told the BBC after his death: “He absolutely loved Wexford and he loved being Wexford.”

How lucky for readers that Wexford’s creator is still going strong and we can only hope Baroness Rendell will keep Wexford alive and sleuthing for a long time to come.