Back in the mid-80’s when I started to look for crime fiction as an adult reader I was a rather strident young university student taking, among my other studies, a course entitled Women in Politics. From memory it covered a mish-mash of history and commentary about the treatment of women in society and was taught by the kind of Germaine Greer worshiping feminist that you don’t often see these days. Apart from turning me into a crushing bore for several months (Surely there’s not much more annoying in life than a newly converted disciple of any cause or faith) the course influenced me to demand my local librarian provide me with contemporary crime fiction by female authors. She suggested Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski series, Sue Grafton’s alphabet books and Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. The first two of these, featuring young, adventurous female protagonists, were far more engaging to my 19-year old self than one starring two middle-aged blokes and I’ve never really gotten over my youthful disdain for Reg Wexford and Mike Burden. The books are forever identified in my mind as depicting an old-school ‘man’s world’ that I wanted no part of and even though I know now that’s a very superficial interpretation of the books I can’t help continuing to be influenced by the thought.
Regardless of this I have read at least half of the Wexford books over the years (they’re available everywhere) but they’ve never been the ones I wait impatiently for. Instead they’re the books I pick up from remainders tables when desperate or borrow from the library because it’s that or Danielle Steele (before the Internet made it simple for me to put holds on books I actually want to read). The only Wexford story I’ve liked is Road Rage which appealed to my inner hippie and focused more on Reg’s wife Dora than the other books I’ve read. I couldn’t provide you a single detail of any of the other novels if my life depended on it.
And so I shall dare to admit here that I groaned audibly when I saw From Doon with Death had been chosen for the upcoming classics month discussion at Oz Mystery Readers. But, because I do try to participate in the group discussions (and because I discovered the story is contained in the Wexford omnibus gathering dust on my bookshelves) I gave it a go.
I don’t think it would be quite fair to review the book properly given my gargantuan blind spot but this is what I thought of the book.
It’s the first in what has become a series of 22 novels featuring Chief Inspector Reg Wexford et al and was written in 1964. Ronald Parsons reports his wife missing to his neighbour Mike Burden, also a policeman. Initially skeptical, Burden starts half-heartedly making enquiries. When Margaret Parsons’ body is found the pace picks up and Wexford and Burden have to unravel a tale that started a dozen years ago when Parsons was at school in the area.
Because I really wasn’t terribly engaged by the book (refer above) I started to take note of the ways it let me know it’s 45 years old. I’d forgotten, for example, that there was a time, before the ‘war on terror’ prompted earthlings to give up any pretence of civil liberties, that an innocent person’s fingerprints would be destroyed once the case for which they’d been taken had been resolved. Imagine! There are a load of similar small details which ensure the book captures its time and place exceptionally well and I really enjoyed that aspect of the book.
The plot is well constructed and I suspect it would have been a little controversial in it’s day but it’s in no way salacious. I did get a bit bored by some of Wexford’s drawn out figuring out of things (the tracking down of the owner of a single tube of lipstick seemed to take forever for example).
We don’t learn much about Reg or Mike in the book which is probably at the heart of my disengagement with the series. We know Mike is married with two young-ish kids but I don’t think there’s any mention of Reg’s family here. We do learn that he’s 52 in this book which would have made him 97 in his last outing if he had aged the same way the rest of us do. I guess that kind of poetic license doesn’t really matter but I think it probably contributes to to my lack of ability to get drawn into the series. I like my characters to be a bit more concretely drawn.
I’ve always felt somewhat heretical for being a crime fiction lover who doesn’t go weak at the knees at the sight of a new Ruth Rendell book. But I don’t and I can’t make myself. This book, like all the others I’ve read, is a perfectly plotted police procedural but it doesn’t have the other part of what I need to want to spend time with a book: engaging characters. To me Reg and Mike are about as interesting as day-old dishwater and neither the victim of the crime here nor any of the suspect pool we were introduced to was much better. It might get me excommunicated from the crime fiction fraternity but I’ve decided I’m done with Wexford. I no longer believe eschewing him is striking a blow for womankind (I really was insufferable 22 years ago) but I am comfortable in admitting he’s just not for me.