While I am a self-acknowledged fan of Ruth Rendell’s psychological stand-alone novels, I have also read and enjoyed a number of Inspector Wexford mysteries. The Vault, Rendell’s latest, and one of the best I’ve read in the Wexford series, finds Chief Inspector Wexford now retired and with his wife Dora, splitting his time between Kingsmarkham and London.
Rendell’s long acquaintance with Wexford’s character proves to be a worthy journey in The Vault, and through the smoothness of the narrative along with the details of Wexford’s inner life, there’s the sense that the author and her long-standing character are old, familiar friends.
A rather nasty police case finds Wexford, not unwillingly, back involved in police work. Wexford runs into Detective Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met.–a chance meeting, but it results in the rather circumspect Ede asking Wexford if he’d be interested in acting as an “expert advisor” in the Orcadia Place case. Wexford, who’s been trying to read Booker prize-winning novels in order to pass his time in a meaningful way, is excited by the prospect, and so he agrees.
The Orcadia Place case is both notorious and a bit of a puzzle. The Rokebys, the owners of Orcadia Cottage (“a sizable detached house” in an expensive neighbourhood) discovered a manhole cover on the grounds on their home. Rokeby had previously had a number of architects and workmen out to his property to assess the viability of building an underground room. Planning permission was refused, so Rokeby’s plans came to nought, but when Rokeby spied the manhole cover (previously covered with a planter), he opened it and looked inside. He saw a small coal room, and inside the room were four bodies. As Ede explains to Wexford:
The manhole cover wasn’t heavy. He lifted it off, and instead of the drain or drainpipe he expected, leading away into the mews, he found himself looking down into a black hole. At the bottom was something he couldn’t properly see apart from a kind of shininess that seemed to be a sheet of plastic. That was covering a multitude of sins, but he didn’t know it then.
Now before he did anything more, he went into the house and fetched his wife. The two of them looked down into the darkness and at the shiny thing and what looked–he said they could just about see it–like a woman’s shoe.
Enter the police. The biggest mystery about the four bodies is that it’s clear, from the decomposition, that the four people were not killed at the same time. Three of the bodies–an older woman, an older man, and a young man, appear to have been dead, according to the pathologist, for somewhere between 11-13 years. The fourth body in “the vault” as Wexford calls the coal room, has been there for only about 2 years. To top off the mystery, there’s about 40,000 in jewelry with the bodies. How can four people go missing and no one notice? Did the same killer kill all 4 victims and use the coal room as a tomb? How can the Rokebys, who were apparently in residence during the last murder, not know anything? And what about all the teams of architects and builders that poked around?
There’s a lot here for Wexford to mull over, and he’s more or less left to his own devices to investigate. Since he is no longer a policeman, he’s occasionally lent a young PC to accompany him with his hunt for information. During the course of his investigation, Wexford learns how to use the internet for research and he also sends his first e-mail.
Since this is a series character, there are also considerable developments in Wexford’s private life. Tragedy strikes and then the limits of family tolerance are strained when Wexford’s divorced daughter Sylvia shows a disappointing lack of acknowledged responsibility, remorse and sensitivity for the events that takes place. Wexford reevaluates his role as a parent:
Dora had been right and he had been wrong, he thought. Keeping aloof from all this, taking no stand, avoiding judgment, that was all wrong. A parent should speak out, no matter what age his child was, no matter what reputation he had achieved as a tolerant and never moralistic arbiter.
Wexford also discovers that he’s not fond of some aspects of Ede’s character, and this makes him miss Burden, his old sidekick from Kingsmarkham. Ede is fond of using clichés and while this makes Wexford wince at first, he discovers the usefulness of clichés as the story spins out.
Possibly the most enjoyable aspects of this Wexford novel are the characters he runs into through the course of the investigation. Orcadia Cottage is in a rather swanky area, and Wexford must question some of the neighbours–one of whom– is a repulsively snobby woman, Mildred Jones, also known as Old Mildreadful. Mildred employs a string of illegal girls at sub-wages, and then fires them when she returns to S. Africa. At one point, she even tells Wexford off for thanking her latest domestic slave for making him a cup of tea. According to Mildred, “It doesn’t do to talk to them like you knew her socially. Do it just once and they start taking advantage.” The fact that Mildred pays a pittance and takes advantage of the fact that illegals have little recourse, escapes this crass, mean-spirited, snob:
Just because I live here–in a whole house, I mean, in St. John’s Wood–and because I got to South Africa every year, people think I’m rolling in money. Let me tell you, I got this flat under our divorce settlement, and that was all I got. Colin got our place in the country and I never had a penny out of him. He sold that house and got enough from it to buy a place on Clapham Common. I have to live on my investments, and you know what that means in a recession. It was all I could do to afford the air fare to Cape Town and then I couldn’t afford first class.
In typical Rendell fashion, the journey to the solution of the crime is one of the best aspects of the tale, and this is manifested in the way Wexford enters people’s lives. Through his eyes we see a range of living arrangements, some happy, some chaotic, and many extremely unhappy. Wexford walks away depressed from some encounters and alternately, he’s happy when he finds a genuinely content couple.
The Vault is actually a sequel to the 1998 novel A Sight for Sore Eyes, but it didn’t seem to matter (and may actually have been a good thing) that I didn’t read the earlier book. It apparently ends with bodies in the coal cellar.