It seems more flattering to prefer Barbara Vine mysteries over Ruth Rendell’s, because those published under Barbara Vine’s name are mostly psychological suspense thrillers, while Ruth Rendell’s are police procedurals (with Inspector Wexford), and when you come to genre fiction, police procedurals are supposed to be more formulaic…
But the truth is quite the opposite. I indeed enjoyed Barbara Vine’s novels, but it was always more of an effort to get into the story. More than once did I waver in the first 50 pages, and a few times I just gave up. On the other hand, I love Inspector Wexford, a dependable, sensitive middle-class guy, and I love the comfort of knowing that the good man will get the job done and make… well, good triumph over evil, that sort of things. And Rendell’s police procedurals are all but formulaic.
Barbara Vine’s Tigerlily’s Orchids defeated me. I never got past the first chapter. So I turned to the opposite direction and rekindled my long-time interest in Inspector Wexford. Just as the character has developed over the different novels, he has aged and years have taken their toll. It’s always a pleasure to feel that fictional people evolve just as you do, isn’t it?
In the Monster in the Box, Wexford reflects over his whole career and how he and his world have changed. There is a good deal of nostalgy, and a lot of background information that makes the book more enjoyable for someone who has already read several Wexford books rather than for newbies.
As a newly appointed policeman Wexford crossed the path of someone who he believed was a killer, yet he never managed to prove it and had to let go of the case. Wexford got rather obsessed by this perfect criminal and never quite managed to follow his daughter’s advice: to put the problem (monster) in a mental box and to close the box to get rid of the obsession. That proves a disputable method, all the more when decades later he bumps into the “monster” again: the box was never really shut.
The elegiac tone is unusual for a traditional police procedural, and the case (or more exactly the 2 parallel cases that end up intertwined with each other and with Wexford’s memories) are full of real surprises.
Mr. Smithereens has the theory that behind each Rendell / Vine novel there is a unique secret theme running in the background. This time I’d say it is about the subtle differences betwen intuitions, obsessions and prejudices, and how even the best policemen are run by them.