Wexford is back in No Man’s Nightingale, the 24th novel in the Wexford series from British author Ruth Rendell. When the book opens, Wexford is firmly entrenched in retirement and working his way through Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This makes him a sitting duck for the annoying, gossipy cleaner, Maxine, so when he’s called in as a civilian by his old protégé, Detective Superintendent Mike Burden who’s investigating a murder case, Wexford gladly sets Gibbon aside and begins sleuthing. The local vicar, a mixed race widow, a single parent named Sarah Hussain has been strangled at the vicarage. Since there’s no sign of a break-in, it’s assumed that she knew her killer. Sarah was a controversial figure, progressive in her attitudes and approach to the parishioners, and she made many enemies in the conservative town of Kingsmarkham. But there’s also the possibility that the killer was someone from Sarah’s murky past. The issues of racism and sexism are raised repeatedly throughout the story, and both Burden and Wexford self-correct their attitudes at several points.
Even as he sympathizes with Burden’s wariness of the press and the pressures of the job, Wexford finds himself at odds with many of Burden’s conclusions, and so while Burden pursues one line of inquiry, Wexford goes in another direction. The two men regroup and exchange notes throughout the novel, and as the case wears on, the divide between Burden and Wexford widens. There’s even a few moments when Wexford finds himself rather pettily launching snide comments at Burden, and even though Wexford is aware of it, there’s part of him that can’t help sinking to that level.
Ruth Rendell excels at creating social situations that explode into violence as the pressure builds, and here there’s a sub-plot involving the Wexford’s cleaner, Maxine. This situation presents Wexford with a moral dilemma in which he must weigh the consequences of betraying a confidence: “Crises of conscience, if that was the way to put them, had never come his way before, or not to such an extent.” The dilemma reinforces the fact that Wexford is no longer a policeman. People confide in him in ways that they would not consider if he was still actively employed as a detective. This is something that Wexford is still trying to adjust to, as we see throughout the novel. Also during the course of his unofficial investigation, he steps into two entirely different marriages, and because he doesn’t have the barrier of ‘authority,’ he’s made privy to the inner workings of two completely toxic relationships.
When for years you have had authority, it is hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stayed disappeared.
As in other Wexford novels, we see glimpses of Wexford’s family–daughter Sheila in London is not involved in this story, but Wexford’s troubled daughter Sylvia and her son Robin are present and become involved with the murdered woman’s daughter, Clarissa. Wexford’s wife, Dora is also here as the bastion of tolerance and support, but even she is pushed to annoyance by her husband’s refusal to let go of his former life as a policeman.
I’ve seen mixed reviews of the book–some readers enjoyed it and others felt that it is time to let Wexford ‘retire.’ The murder aspect of the novel is flawed; the question of exactly who killed Sarah Hussain is, of course, pursued until the end of the novel, but as a character, she remains murky, and the final element involving Clarissa seemed a little too forced given the earlier build-up.
In spite of the book’s flaws, for this reader, picking up a Rendell novel is like returning to an old friend. No Man’s Nightingale is really more about Wexford than the solution of the murder, and I liked that approach as, after all, Wexford is a major character for Rendell. Here we see him in retirement, and as a result of a life devoted to police work, he has zero hobbies beyond reading. Dora has a social life, and the point is made in the novel that she knows Kingsmarkham residents that her husband does not. Wexford has an enormous adjustment to make–he is no longer a figure of authority, he is no longer to be feared, and he can no longer lead an investigation, so he must sit back and watch as the police manage the investigation badly and people die as a result. The complexities of the relationship between Burden and Wexford are seen through the mentor-protégé prism which has now shifted leaving many uncomfortable moments. Wexford itches to order Burden to pursue a particular angle in the investigation, but he cannot, so instead Wexford is reduced to responding with nasty, almost, ‘I told you so’ comments. At various points in the novel, he’s forced to confront some uncomfortable facts–he finds himself calling a witness into question as it “was well-known that elderly people’s memories often behaved in a peculiar way,” and yet this man is a contemporary of Wexford’s. Ultimately, No Man’s Nightingale is about aging and letting go, gracefully, and as always, Wexford has one eye on the game, and one eye on himself, so he reflects about his life with his usual wise observations.
Strange, Wexford thought, how words which when uttered or written pierced to one’s very soul could later on not just be reflected on with wry humour but actually make one laugh.