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If you are a fan of Ruth Rendell's work, you will have noticed that recently two unthinkable things have happened. Firstly, in The Monster in the Box, her much loved Chief Inspector Wexford retired, and then in her latest book The Vault, she has produced her first sequel in her catalogue of over seventy titles. The Vault is not just unusual in being a sequel, however, it also brings the two distinct strands of her work (the Wexford novels and the non-Wexford crime thrillers) together into an intriguing and compelling whole.
Reg Wexford (plain old Mr these days) is taking some time to adjust to no longer being a member of Kingsmarkham's police force. Making an effort to keep himself busy, he and his wife Dora start dividing their time between their country home and their daughter's coach house in London. They plan day trips and outings, read books and visit family, and Wexford takes to walking around the city a lot, enjoying the exercise he used to struggle to find time to take when he was working. It is while on one of his long walks that he bumps into Tom Ede, a man he once knew as a young constable. Now a Detective Superintendent, Tom is a man burdened with a difficult case and takes the opportunity of meeting Wexford to invite him to use his years of experience as an unpaid advisor to his investigative team. It will come as no surprise that Wexford is keen to get involved in the police work he so misses, even as someone will no official standing or rank.
The case itself is an intriguing one. Martin and Anne Rokeby are residents of Orcadia Cottage, a pretty Georgian house in St John's Wood. During some speculative examination of their property with a mind to building a basement family room, Martin lifted a previously ignored manhole cover in his back yard and made a discovery that would end up "wrecking his life for a long time to come". The discovery in question is four bodies in what was once the cottage's coal hole: two men and two women. Those of you who read Rendell's stand-alone crime thrillers may just have experienced a sense of déjà vu here and rightly so. If you have previously read 1999's A Sight for Sore Eyes, then you have come across Orcadia Cottage before, and will know who three of the bodies in the coal hole are and how they got there. The fourth body has, however, only been in this hole for about two years, leaving ample mystery for even the most avid reader of Rendell's work.
The set-up for The Vault is probably the most interesting that I have seen in Rendell's work for quite some time. Apparently she was seeking inspiration and something to do with Reg Wexford now he was no longer a Chief Inspector, and her eyes fell upon her copies of her earlier books and she thought - well, why not? A Sight For Sore Eyes was never written to be a book that needed a sequel, but the opportunity the ending of the book presented proved irresistible in the light of giving Wexford - and her loyal fans - a good mystery to solve.
Although I have only read a small number of the Wexford books, I have read the majority of her other thrillers; I loved the idea of these previously separate areas of writing being woven together. This must have created something of a difficulty for her to script, however, as the book had to be intelligible to not only people who had read little or no Wexford previously, but also readers who may or may not have read A Sight for Sore Eyes. In the end, it mattered little that I was fairly unfamiliar with Wexford, as he and his situation were given adequate background for it to work for me. Equally, knowing who three out of the four bodies in the coal hole were did nothing to spoil the plot - indeed, watching Wexford catch up with what many of the readers already knew was highly entertaining, and the well-hidden secret surrounding body number four kept me going until the end.
While I was reading The Vault, I attended Rendell's interview at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, an event too rare to miss. In it, she admitted that Wexford is in many ways based on herself - much of his character, personality, likes and dislikes reflect what the author thinks. This is perhaps why Wexford has endured for so long, and also why he was retired rather than killed off - Rendell admitted that she couldn't bear to do to him what Conan Doyle did to Sherlock Holmes ("well, I would just have to find a way to bring him back again, wouldn't I?"). This makes me think that whatever happens to Wexford in the future, The Vault is not the last book we shall be seeing him in.
Rendell's style has always been succinct and yet compelling and The Vault is no different. A short book at only 272 pages, it nonetheless presented a satisfying and involving story, although perhaps one a tad overpriced at £18.99 for the hardback version. It comes recommended from me, but to get the most out of it you really should read A Sight For Sore Eyes and at least a couple of Wexford novels beforehand; that is perhaps the only disadvantage I can offer.
=== Book Details ===
The Vault by Ruth Rendell
Hardback, 272 pages, RRP £18.99
Kindle edition, £7.19