Chief Inspector Wexford, making his third appearance in Rendell’s long-running series about murder in and around the fictional town of Kingsmarkham, in fact appears relatively seldom here. Instead, it is a tender-souled vicar named Henry Archery who acts as lead sleuth in the case at hand, one that begins with the re-opening of an old case.
One Sunday night back in 1950, Rose Isabel Primero succumbed to a deadly stabbing attack. Her chauffeur, Fred Painter, was hanged for the killing later that year. Now, in 1966, Rev. Archery’s son plans to marry Tess Kershaw, née Painter, and Archery can’t bear the prospect of seeing his offspring wed to the daughter of a homicidal loser. (Archaic notions of genetic as well as social inferiority addle the clergyman’s otherwise kindly mind.) Wexford, who handled the original investigation, warns Archery that the case against Painter was as airtight as such cases can be. Yet the vicar presses on—with results that are as tragic as they are revelatory—in his quest to find out whether Tess’s father was indeed a murderer.
The tale, one of murder in retrospect, delivers the usual delights of that story type. There is the looming threat that a new killing might occur to cover a trail that leads back to the old one. There is the pervasive sense that the past has not passed into history, but rather lives on in the troubled, often repressed memory of surviving parties. And there is the dense layering of time, place, and character—an effect that makes every scene ramify provocatively in multiple directions. It’s a narrative model that well suits Rendell’s enormous talent, which pivots around her ability to depict with unerring acuity the social and psychic rifts that give rise to violent conflict. In this instance, Rendell evokes an England in the Swinging Sixties that was livelier and more fluid, though no less class-ridden, than the austere England of mid-century. Somewhat disappointingly, she departs from the standard detective-novel formula (murder, followed by mystification, followed by a surprise finish), but in compensation she offers a tart, healthy dose of romance.