Ruth Rendell is one of the Hound's greatest living crime writers. Her Inspector Wexford series is her best known and here is number 16 in the run.
In the quiet Sussex country town of Kingsmarkham, the daughter of Nigerian physician Raymond Akande is missing. "It's probably nothing, " says Dr. Akande to his friend and client Chief Inspector Wexford, whose help he enlists.
But the days that follow prove the doctor dreadfully wrong. A young woman is found murdered not Melanie, but the last person to have seen and spoken to her. A second woman's body is discovered, again not Melanie's, but like her, young and black. A third woman turns up beaten and unconscious; like the others, she is of Nigerian origin. As Inspector Wexford's investigation stretches from days into weeks, it becomes his unhappy obligation to counter the hopes of the doctor and his wife. In Wexford's professional opinion, Melanie, like the other young women, has become the victim of a serial killer with a horrifyingly singular objective.
As the novel opens, Wexford gets a call from his doctor, Raymond Akande. At first, Wexford thinks it’s a call about his health. But Akande has another purpose. His twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie went missing after a visit to the local employment bureau and Akande wants Wexford’s help in finding her. At first Wexford isn’t overly worried although he does put the “missing-persons” machinery into action. After all, Melanie Akande is an adult who could easily have gone off for a few days. Then, her disappearance takes on a more sinister aspect when another woman, Annette Bystock, is found strangled in her bed. Bystock was the jobs counselor with whom Melanie Akande met just before she disappeared, so Wexford and his team soon believe that there’s a connection between Bystock’s murder and Melanie Akande’s disappearance.The team begins to trace what they know of Annette Bystock’s last days and of the last days in which Melanie Akande was seen and slowly start to develop a picture of what might have happened. Then, the body of a young woman is discovered in the woods near Kingsmarkham. Wexford’s called to the scene and at first, he believes the body is that of Melanie Akande. He even goes so far as to inform her parents that her body’s been found. But is it?
This is a police procedural, so we find out about those events through what the evidence shows, what witnesses and suspects say and lie about, and what Wexford and his team deduce. It’s painstaking work, and we see how the team learns things, makes mistakes, goes back again and slowly gets to the truth. That “police procedural” aspect of the novel lends realism to the story.
One of the most important themes in this story is prejudice. I use that word, as Rendell does, in its broader sense of preconceptions. It’s prejudice, for instance, that allows Melanie Akande to disappear, since nobody pays very much attention to a young black woman. Wexford has to confront his own prejudices, too, when he realises that he assumed that the unidentified black woman was Melanie, simply because of race. There is, in fact, quite a lot of discussion of racial prejudice and anti-immigration sentiment in this novel but to Rendell’s credit, it’s not preachy. Instead, we see how individuals who are caught in prejudice speak and behave. We also see that prejudice isn’t just reserved for Whites against people of other races. Rendell paints a broader picture of it than that. Because of that, we also see how insidious prejudice can be.
There’s also a sub-plot of economic prejudice. Wexford’s daughter Sylvia’s husband Neil has become unemployed. And the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the family dynamics show clearly how, as Neil puts it, “…being unemployed demotes you.” The employment bureau where Annette Bystock worked and where Melanie Akande sought a job shows this prejudice. Those seeking work are subjected to unpleasantness that those with full-time jobs would never tolerate. For instance, an appointment with a job counselor might be for ten-thirty, but that may easily mean the candidate doesn’t meet with a counselor until one o’clock. As Wexford gets a closer look at the life of the unemployed, both in his work and his experience with his son-in-law, he gets a much clearer picture of what it’s like, and so does the reader. It’s again to Rendell’s credit though that she doesn’t preach. Not all of the unemployed characters are very nice people, and not all of those who work at the bureau are uncaring, nasty bureaucrats.
Prejudice also takes the form of sexism in this novel. For instance, we see it when it comes out that Annette Bystock was having an affair with the very married Bruce Snow. The story of that affair has more than a little sexism in it. There are other, starker, examples of sexism in the novel, but…no spoilers.The novel takes place against a backdrop of an upcoming election in which views about race, immigration, unemployment and other evidences of prejudice come to the forefront. That sub-plot adds to the whole theme of prejudice and people’s assumptions.
There is also the theme of how unsettling social change can be. Kingsmarkham has changed over the years, both demographically and in terms of its geography. Unemployment has hit, old familiar buildings have given way to new structures, and those changes add an underlying thread of unease to the novel.
Simisola is not a light, easy novel. There’s much to think deeply about and we see how individuals and families can be devastated by tragedy. We also see, starkly, how that devastation can depend on whose tragedy it is. And yet, despite the sadness in this novel, there are some light touches. For instance, Wexford and his team have been under quite a lot of pressure from their boss and the press to find Melanie Akande. One hot, exhausting day, Wexford just happens to stop at a café for drink when a tabloid reporter snaps a ‘photo of him at table. The next day his ‘photo is all over the papers as evidence that the police aren’t doing anything to find the missing young woman. Needless to say, Wexford is less than pleased about it and takes his share of ribbing when the papers come out.
For fans of Reg Wexford, Simisola offers the pleasant opportunity to “reunite” with Wexford, his colleague Mike Burden, Wexford’s wife Dora and his children and grandchildren. But it’s not necessary to have read all fifteen of the previous novels to understand the story and be engaged in it. For newcomers to the series, it’s an engaging mystery with many sobering thoughts to offer about our assumptions and where they can lead us.
About Ruth Rendell:
Born in London, The United Kingdom, in 1930.
Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE, who also writes under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. She is an acclaimed crime writer, known for her many psychological thrillers and murder mysteries.
Shes is a Labour party life peer at the House of Lords.