Chief Insp. Wexford has proven to be remarkably durable. British crime writer Ruth Rendell created him in 1964, and he has since appeared in 15 more mysteries, including the latest, Simisola. Though Wexford himself-stalwart, impatient of fools, given to occasional flashes of intuition-remains the same solidly middle-class police officer, the England he knows has changed, even in his quiet Kingsmarkham home in southern England. There is often an undertone of bemused contempt for much of contemporary British life in Rendell’s books: shopping malls litter the semi-rural landscape, illiterate youths sullenly hang about, bureaucrats invent new euphemisms daily to describe the shockingly high levels of unemployment. And in Simisola, as in her earlier books, the author uses such details as essential pieces in the elegant puzzle she constructs.
This time, the puzzle has a strong racial component. Melanie Akande, one of only 18 black people in the small town of Kingsmarkham, has disappeared. The 22-year-old is the daughter of Dr. Raymond Akande and his wife, Laurette, a senior nurse, both of whom are upset at their daughter’s joblessness. In fact, Melanie was last seen at the social assistance office, where she was applying for benefits.
As Wexford investigates, he finds himself embroiled in discussions about race. ‘We’re all racist,” he tells his skeptical assistant Mike Burden. We were conditioned that way and it’s in us still, it’s ineradicable.” Because of that belief, Wexford overcompensates with the distraught Akandes, dropping in every morning to discuss the case. He makes a blunder, however, that is directly attributable to a kind of unconscious racism. The investigation then veers off in a new direction.
Rendell brings a cool, unemotional style to the Wexford series. And Simisola illustrates the author’s dexterity: the clues are distributed fairly, with the unusual title appearing only once, as the very last word of the book.
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