While the Rendell Wexfords from this period, like Rendell's sister Crime Queen P. D. James' earlier Adam Dalgleish novels, offer clever, fairly clued puzzle plots, I think they are more forward looking than James' books. Though a policeman and not an "eccentric amateur" sleuth, James' Dalgleish seems more a throwback to the Golden Age Great Detective, being a sophisticated yet isolated loner (a poet no less).
On the other hand, Rendell's Wexford, with his wife and daughters and his sidekick subordinate, Mike Burden, seems to have helped set the mold for numerous crime fiction series about provincial English policeman (and, more recently, policewomen). Often people say they prefer the "psychological" Rendells or the Vines, but I think the Wexfords should receive their due too.
Beginning in 1985 with An Unkindess of Ravens, Rendell began writing longer Wexfords (all her Rendells got longer at this time, like the books in her Vine series, which was launched in 1986; this has been, of course, a general trend in crime fiction over the last three decades). Between 1985 and 2013 Rendell has published another dozen Wexfords, which are more of a mixed bag in my view. The puzzle plotting tends to be more diffuse, while there is greater emphasis on social issues (feminism, racism, environmentalism, child molestation, spousal abuse, female circumcision).
I was going to review Ravens here this week, but to be frank I found this novel the worst Wexford I have read. To me the writing was flat and the characters uninteresting (the women, for example, seemed caricatures, either stereotypical doormat housewives or stereotypical strident feminists, which really surprised me, coming from this writer). I can't help feeling that at this time her creative interest was really drifting over to the psychological Rendells and the debut Vine (The Killing Doll, 1984, The Tree of Hands, 1984, Live Flesh, 1986, A Dark Adapted Eye, 1986). Coming right in the middle of that "Big Four," Ravens seems particularly unmemorable.
I decided to go back and look at the novel Simisola (1994), arguably, I think, the best of the later Rendell Wexfords. This has the overt political dimension Rendell now likes in her Wexfords, plus strong writing and characters and a more focused plot. It's also longer in the modern style (I'm guessing about 120,000 words), so I am not quite ready for the full review! But I hope to have more soon.
As in the case of my "humdrum" favorite, John Street, many of Gladys Mitchell's books are extremely rare--she never really caught on with US print publishers--and expensive, which has put them out of the reach of most readers. Now she is accessible again, with a wide range of works. Good news indeed!