The Vault by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s updating of her 1998 crime novel A Sight for Sore Eyes is a tour de force, and a real treat for readers

Sunday Times, 31 July 2011

Over the years, Ruth Rendell’s crime novels have followed two parallel tracks: a series of police procedurals starring her wise detective, Chief Inspector Wexford, and a number of unrelated psychological thrillers. Now Wexford has retired, Rendell has spotted an opportunity to bring the two strands together in a superb novel called The Vault.

The vault is actually a coal hole beneath Orcadia Cottage, a Georgian house in St John’s Wood in London. Rendell’s regular readers will recognise it from her 1998 novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes; the house had already achieved a kind of fame because its pop-star tenant and his then girlfriend were painted in front of it in 1973.

When The Vault opens, Wexford and his wife are on a trip to London. Orcadia Cottage is inhabited by a wealthy couple who don’t know about the coal hole until they move a tub of flowers behind the house. The husband spots a manhole cover, struggles to lift it and is horrified to discover four corpses. Three of them are badly decomposed but the fourth, a young woman, appears more recent.

One of many clever things about the new novel is that it offers a tantalising mystery for readers unfamiliar with the earlier book, while anyone who remembers it will know how some — but not all — of the corpses ended up there. Wexford comes to the case without prior knowledge when he’s asked for unofficial assistance by the detective in charge; forensic examination complicates the puzzle when it is revealed that the two male corpses are distantly related, but there is no obvious connection between the two women.

The investigation starts with the house’s various tenants and owners. The pop star is dead from an overdose but his girlfriend, Harriet, turns out to have lived in the cottage with her husband in the 1990s. He left her in 1998, and she becomes a prime candidate for identification as the older woman in the vault.

A Sight for Sore Eyes was about class and the failure of people from different backgrounds to recognise danger signs in new acquaintances. In it, a young psychopath called Teddy Brex discovered a talent for woodwork and used it to get access to the cottage, where he showed off to a lovely young woman he had met at an exhibition. A beautifully carved mirror hangs in the house as a memento of their affair, its significance unrecognised even when Wexford begins to connect Brex to the tomb in the back garden.

The novel has a modern twist, in the shape of a subplot about sex-trafficking, but the author’s sheer technical skill is evident as she effortlessly brings the original story up to date. Only a novelist whose characters feel intensely real to her could pull off such a coup, and Rendell’s relish in calling in Wexford to investigate suggests she hasn’t enjoyed herself so much for ages.

Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £19.82 pp266.

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