Saturday, January 23, 2021

Brush up Your Wordsworth: A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970), by Ruth Rendell

The girls today in society
Go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides

--"Brush up Your Shakespeare" by Cole Porter

Inspector Wexford
(looking like Oliver Hardy)
and Mike Burden survey
the full-bodied corpse of
Elizabeth Nightingale
Who done it?!
Once she had attained her own great success as a crime writer Ruth Rendell was known to make the odd catty comment or two--or three or four or five or six--about Agatha Christie, the once and future Queen of Crime.  It's easy to surmise why Rendell could be uncharitable toward her predecessor when one looks at paperback Rendell reprints like the one pictured on the left, from American publisher Ballantine, dated June 1975, when Christie herself was still alive.  

Ruth Rendell, Ballantine declared, was "the new first lady of mystery in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie."  It's no wonder that AC was still, to the vexation of Rendell, the gold standard for rising English mystery writers in those days, at least in publishers' eyes.  The next month the New York Times would publish news of the "death" of Christie's famed sleuth Hercule Poirot on its front page

There it is with what might be termed rather less frivolous news  items:

Malaysian Terrorists Free Most Hostages in Embassy

A Portuguese Town Wars on Communism

Opening of Mail is Traced to F.B.I.

Investigators in Hoffa Case Trying to Find Foster Son

Alger Hiss is Readmitted to Massachusetts Bar

Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective

opening of Hercule Poirot's
August 6, 1975 obituary
in the New York Times
The final Poirot case, Curtain, was published in October, becoming an immediate bestseller. In the New York Times the novel was reviewed by crime writer Julian Symons with his usual unstable mixture of admiration and condescension.  Know-all Symons pronounced that Christie's genteel mysteries, like those of her sisters in crime Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers* said "something about manners but nothing about life," yet on the lower level of a literary trickster Christie herself was "the champion deceiver of our time.

Publishers naturally blurbed that last part!

*(Symons, though once a co-member of the Detection Club with Sayers, in a figurative thumb in the eye in his NYT review omitted Sayers' cherished middle initial "L.")

Ruth Rendell like Julian Symons increasingly wanted her own fiction to say something about life (by which, one gathers, Symons meant its brutally visceral "mean street" realities) and she became mortally tired of all the Christie comparisons to which she and her gal pal PD James were subjected, accepting as she did the standard view that Christie was "merely" a maker of clever puzzles with nothing to say about life.  In 1977 she would publish her much praised crime novel A Judgment in Stone, in which, as I recollect, a lower class woman goes on a savage killing spree because she's embarrassed about her illiteracy.  There's dreary reality for you!

By the 1980s Rendell's interest in her fiction would decisively shift from her own traditional Inspector Wexford detective stories--mere puzzles, don't you know--to sprawling "crime novels" published under her own name and that of Barbara Vine.  However, for roughly twenty years, from 1964 to 1983, those Inspector Wexford mysteries at some sixty to eighty thousand economical words a book for the most part were jewels in the crown of what might be deemed the Silver Age of detective fiction.  They retain great appeal precisely as, yes, puzzles.  

Unfortunately, there is at least one stinker in the batch, I have found: A Guilty Thing Surprised, the fifth Inspector Wexford mystery, published by Rendell in 1970.  Rendell had made a brilliant debut six years earlier with From Doon with Death and in A Guilty Thing Surprised one senses that Rendell was trying to repeat that success; but she misses the mark widely in my view.  

On the surface Surprise offers much to please fans of the classic mystery, with its classic country house setting and literary quotations, the latter lobbed with the studied determination and appalling frequency of the great Dorothy L. herself.  (There's an epigraph from Romantic poet William Wordsworth--pay attention!

When the beautiful mistress of Myfleet Manor, Elizabeth Nightingale, is found bloodily bludgeoned to death on the grounds of the estate, the suspects include her husband, Quentin, naturally, but also her embittered scholarly brother Denys Villiers, an English schoolmaster and literary critic, and her wifely, awkwardly bourgeois sister-in-law, Georgina, as well as a couple of servants, the handsome young assistant gardener, Sean Lovell, and the buxom and sexually carefree Dutch au pair, Katje Doorn.  While Sean, with his dream, encouraged by Elizabeth, of becoming a pop singing sensation. and Katje, with her free and easy notions of sex, are modern figures, the rest of the servants are improbable throwbacks to between-the-wars British mystery, with their grousing about Sean and Katje (or "Catcher" as they call her) not knowing their proper stations in life.  Were there really still house servants like this in 1970? 

Here's the cook, Mrs. Cantrip (love the name) responding to Sean's expressed desire to get out of the "old groove" and become a pop singer:

"You're groove's gardening and don't you forget it."

cooks invariable seem to be social reactionaries
in English detective fiction
(Mrs. Patmore in Downton Abbey)

Then there's head gardener Will Palmer, who to Inspector Wexford expresses his rustic philosophy of life and class relations thusly:

"I hope I know my place, sir."

"I always have said that the gentry have their funny ways as the likes of us don't understand."

"I hope I'm gone before any of this equality gets any worse than what it is."

Let's all have a round of "Ar's" to that!

It's rather like watching an episode of Downtown Abbey, except even there as I recollect you had a chauffeur who was a Communist, or something like.  I know it must have been lovely for upper class people in 1970 to believe that their servants actually were like this, but were they, really?  Were there even servants?  

Of course it's up to our old friend Reg Wexford and his assistant Mike Burden to nab the culprit of this violent country house crime.  Sergeant Burden seems unbelievably priggish in the early Rendell books, in this one at one point admonishing his young son not to say "Blimey!" because, I kid you not, "It means God blind me, and you know I don't like to hear you swear."  Again, did anyone in England utter sentiments like this?  You tell me, I'm not English. Certainly no one said blimey in the good old U. S. of A., but that's because they were saying a lot worse things, goddammit.  

I get the feeling Ruth Rendell created the "conservative" Mike Burden and gave him all these ridiculous sentiments in order to make herself, a self-proclaimed socialist who yet was a striving multi-millionaire who spent book after book in her later years denouncing poor grammar, political correctness and the uncouthness of the lower class, feel less conservative herself.  Methinks Ruth did protest too much.  On the other hand, Mike Burden as originally conceived by Rendell might well have fit in today with MAGA or whatever the British equivalent is, so maybe Ruth was on to something after all.  Wexford for his part is much more "hip" and "with it," despite being rather older than Burden, but nevertheless he feels great consternation when a man who is something more than a casual acquaintance of his calls him by his first name.  Quelle horreur!

William Wordsworth, about whom 
Wexford learns some things
Setting all this aside, where Rendell's novel falls apart for me as a novel of detection is that there isn't actually much detection.  Rather we get several info dump gossip sessions between Wexford and a tiresome campy individual named Lionel Marriott.  Then Wexford reads a book on William Wordsworth and voila! he has solved the mystery.  It's really that simple.  Then we get a long confession (over ten pages), where these deep sentiments are tapped which seem out of sorts with the actual characters as previously portrayed.  You get the feeling that in these last pages Rendell was trying to impose a crime novel on the detective novel superstructure and it just doesn't hold up.  The characters were never developed to the point where they would support such heavy emotions. Try as Rendell might, they remain puppets.  A Guilty Thing Surprised tries to be something it fundamentally isn't.

So this one for me was a fair stinker, but to be just to Rendell, of all the early Wexfords I have read it was the only stinker.  Rendell remains in my view a major exponent of the classic English mystery, even if it's something that for many years of her life she no longer wanted to be.  A guilty thing surprised, indeed!


  1. Yes, I remember the confession more than the mystery!

    Not the only stinker from Rendell's early years, though. Have you read Vanity Dies Hard?

    1. I was thinking of the Wexfords when I spoke of stinkers, but I actually like Vanity as an example of the classic mid-century women's suspense novel. I know some people find the ending unbearably cornball, however. The early non-Wexford I recall not liking was the wasp one? What was the title? Yet I don't remember anything else about it. I liked Secret House of Death.

    2. To Fear a Painted Devil it is. I see you give it four stars at your blog, perhaps I should reread, it's been like 25 years!

  2. I think you'd enjoy Devil; it's a straightforward whodunnit with a clever poisoning problem.

    It's been almost 25 years since I read Vanity Dies Hard - women's suspense fiction (with that solution) probably isn't aimed at 13-year-old boys!

    I picked up 30-odd Rendells a couple of months ago, but didn't enjoy the two I read (Keys to the Street and Dark-Adapted Eye; couldn't get into Asta's Book). I find her very uneven; she could be clever and humane, but many of the non-Wexfords are too harrowing. Any suggestions for the Barbara Vines?

    1. Well I loved Asta's Book, so I might not be much help there. I liked the first three too and Brimstone Wedding and Blood Doctor.

  3. I agree, Ruth Rendell is uneven but when she stays on target, she hits it out of the ballpark. Her works that have lingered longest for me are her stand-alones or Barbara Vine novels including The Bridesmaid, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me and The Girl Next Door. That last one is one of her last .... and is a mystery but also a meditation on growing old.

    1. I just checked and this is the fourteenth Rendell/Vine I have reviewed on this blog, she's probably my most reviewed author here. Only two negative reviews out of that!

  4. I find her one of the most variable writers, and I have never understood why her heroes - Wexford and Burden, and they plainly are meant to be heroes, not flawed individuals - have such repellant views so much of the time. And I too find it hard to believe that in 1970 the servants were expressing the sentiments you quote.

  5. This is totally off topic but I thought of you when I saw this Mr & Mrs North cover-