The Monster in the Box is the twenty-second of Ruth Rendell’s books to feature Chief Inspector Reg Wexford and here he is, in the present, although nowhere near as old as he’d have to be if he’d aged in line with his first appearance back in 1964 in From Doon With Death!
Pleasingly in what turned out to be Wexford’s last outing as a paid policeman, although he does appear retired in both The Vault and No Man’s Nightingale, he gives the reader an insight into his early years right back to before he got married and his belief that a man who has stalked him on and off over the years from that time has reappeared. I was happily carried away with this nostalgia for times gone by which is wickedly edged with something far more sinister by way of this maybe stalker Eric Targo. Wexford’s first challenge is to be certain that it is the same man, as previously Targo sported a livid birthmark on his neck which he kept covered with a scarf and the man he’s recently encountered doesn’t have one, but then medical advances have been made in the intervening period. Wexford is concerned enough that he opens up to his close friend DI Burden over wine and a minimal amount of cashew nuts, for the first time that he believes that not only has Targo followed him through the decades, but that he is a serial killer. Wexford only reason for keeping this information secret is that he has not one scrap of evidence, but he’s determined to find some now!
The tone of the book is entirely in keeping with the look back over the years and never more so than when describing the investigation into Elsie Carroll’s death which makes you realise just how unsophisticated the field was back then. Elsie’s husband John is tried for the murder but released on a technicality but Wexford suspects the killer was Targo despite his seemingly cast-iron alibi. Although the tone is reminiscent of older generations throughout time with the ‘well of course we didn’t have….’ And the ‘…. Hadn’t been invented then’ types of phrases the most evocative parts of the past are in the descriptions of the evenings spent by those in the neighbourhood at the time of Elsie Carroll’s death.
Intertwined with this storyline is one concerning Burden’s second wife, Jenny, and the new DS Hannah Goldsmith who are concerned that something untoward is happening with one of Jenny’s former pupils Tamima. This is a complex storyline includes a DS who has done all the awareness training and the way a Muslim family bring up their daughter makes for uncomfortable reading not because of the cultural sensitivities but the ham-fisted way the women go about trying to prove that there aren’t any, the result is that this aspect can either be viewed as an inspired way of trying to enlighten her readers to the obvious conflicts or as being borderline offensive. I took the former viewpoint but I’m not sure everyone would.
As always Ruth Rendell provides her most solid of policemen with a solid mystery, and a satisfying read. Granted, this isn’t up to the standard of some of her greatest books, but there is a proper mystery, the book moves forward at a steady investigative pace and the backwards look over Reg’s personal life was a really lovely and welcome touch.
The Monster in the Box was my fourteenth read in my Mount TBR Challenge 2017, so I’m still on target to hit 36 books purchased before 1 January 2017. I don’t know when I purchased this book but it was on a shelf of books that I planned to read before the end of 2014 – that target got missed!