In 2009, Ruth Rendell declared that she had written her final Inspector Wexford mystery, but like the best of British curmudgeons, Wexford has clearly refused to be disposed of.
Now retired from the force and dividing his time between fancy London and the cozy market town of Kingsmarkham, Wexford nevertheless still manages to skulk about at crime scenes and suspect interviews as a “crime solutions adviser (unpaid),” welcomed both by former colleagues and, surprisingly often, the suspects themselves.
At one point he even pilfers a letter from a murder scene. Certainly, that takes plenty of moxie and demonstrates Wexford’s ongoing thirst for the chase. “No Man’s Nightingale’’ showcases both of these qualities in spades.
From the start, this particular case appears to be one of Murder Most English. The victim is discovered at a Victorian-era vicarage and turns out to be the somewhat controversial vicar herself. The Rev. Sarah Hussain was of mixed-race origin, a convert to Christianity, and a single mother — cue sexist comments and snarls from various characters, especially the unpleasantly crusty vicar’s warden, and a creepy, peevish neighboring gardener.
Besides Wexford and fellow investigators Detective Superintendent Mike Burden and Detective Constable Lynn Fancourt, Rendell unspools an entertaining cast of characters, including the suddenly orphaned daughter, two female friends of Hussain’s, and her long-lost boyfriend.
For the most part, Rendell effectively dangles a handful of addictive red herrings while nudging the main mystery gently along. A huge chunk of the story unfolds via the malapropism-laden monologues of Maxine Sams, a cleaner-about-town who discovers the vicar’s corpse. This narrative choice proves distracting at times and poignant and humorous at others. Part of the tale revolves around an extended semi-comedy of errors involving Sams’s family and community circle (with quite a few terrors thrown in), which lurches from buoyant to profoundly flat.
There are also lovely touches of detail, such as one secondary yet unforgettable character who is “uncompromisingly fat and apparently happy to be so . . . her sole frivolity lacy but thick, brown tights.” Or the furtive drinker and good-for-nothing dude who loves nothing more than watching TV’s “The X Factor” and “The Voice” and who “always appreciated postponements. When something was put off, some event and possibly a good one often intervened to change things pleasantly.”
Rendell makes room for Wexford’s fleeting musings on everything from tattoos and nose-rings to the ways in which language changes over time, as well as for a few deeper reflections: “People who killed others,” he observes during one particularly philosophical moment, “never thought of those others’ perpetual remembering, the pain, the sadness, the inability ever to put the crime behind them. Or they didn’t care.”
Best of all for Wexford fans, the book affords some terrific moments between the retired sleuth and Burden. One eye-opener in particular forces Wexford to realize just how alert his former partner can be. The relationship with Burden clearly continues to sharpen over time, and the two display a friendship marked by kindnesses, generosities, and mutual respect, which includes a willingness to disagree professionally while working cases.
Despite his often-cranky demeanor, Wexford remains engaged and mostly enlightened. In between ponderously dipping in and out of Gibbon’s multivolume “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’’ “expecting to find it heavy going, but instead becoming fast enraptured and enjoying every word,” he’s clearly still willing to tackle the occasional elusive murder mystery and the psychological mulling it will entail: “Why not wake up tomorrow morning a free man,” he considers as the mystery continues to unravel, “with nothing to do but relax and enjoy himself? It wasn’t an inviting prospect.”
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.