The Vault is a Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford mystery—the jacket calls it a “novel” and it can lay claim fairly to that description. Rendell writes a complex, nuanced, character-rich tale that mixes criminal industries, social inequalities, personal failings, family relationships, architecture, geography and gardening into a Mensa-like puzzle that will keep you glued to the page. Or screen, I suppose.
Wexford is retired but not very complacently. When a younger colleague asks him to take on the discovery of four bodies as an informal advisor to the case, he jumps at the chance. This involves some delicate footwork for the intuitive, experienced old detective who no longer has police privileges and can’t be seen as trying to take charge. He isn’t entirely successful but he is always mindful of his new, reduced position.
The owner of a storied cottage in London unearths a grisly burial when he removes the manhole cover from an unused coalhole in the center of a paved backyard patio. Three bodies have been down in the vault for a dozen years, a fourth body for merely two. No one knows who they might be so Wexford sets about solving the crime or crimes. There are many rancorous relationships that may have provided motive but the decade between the deaths is a stumbling point as is the fact that none of the bodies matches any missing persons reports.
The retired inspector is dogged, if hamstrung by his lack of authority, but personal crises interrupt his sleuthing. His daughter is stabbed and nearly dies—that story is more complicated than first revealed and progresses to a horrible conclusion. Wexford’s living arrangements are unsettled—he and his wife shuttle between their old home in Kingsmarkham and a London carriage house provided for them by their other daughter. His new habit of walking everywhere puts him in the pink of health but his old habits place him in harm’s way and nearly do him in.
Building, surveying, renovating, changing seasons and landscaping have as much to do with the crime as xenophobia, predation and greed. Wexford’s eye misses little, from the link between mood and fashion to the precise color of a prized Edsel to the facial tics that disclose deceit. Rendell has not won every mystery writer’s award on the planet for nothing. Her crime novel is polished, well-paced, salted with enigmatic clues and perplexing developments. The Vault yields its secrets reluctantly—Wexford and his puzzle keep you guessing until the end. A thorough workout for the brain and an inducement to track Inspector Wexford as he fails at retirement but meets the challenges of solving the crime.
The Vault: An Inspector Wexford Novel Ruth Rendell | Scribner 2011