I’ve been reading some of Ruth Rendell’s work lately. That sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? Just picked up a couple of her latest, enjoyed the experience, had a nice day, eh? The fact is I have, over the past couple weeks read every single one of the Inspector Wexford series that the Charlottesville Public Library could provide for me. The whole series comprises twenty-five books, but that would be expecting too much. I did find some twenty (or rather, they were found for me), going back to From Doon With Death, 1964, and ending with The Vault, 2011 (the latest Inspector Wexford, Nobody’s Nightingale, 2013, is not yet available from the library) and read them, as nearly in order as I could. A formidable enterprise. Some had seen already. Some were nearly new to me. All were changed by the experience of reading them in sequence.
Those who also cherish Ruth Rendell will need no explanation for why I did this. For anyone else, an explanation may not be possible. It helped, if such a thing can be described as help, that I was also down with a case of flu at the time. After the first intimations of mortality have passed, what else is there to do when you’re down sick but read? Not that I staggered to the library and got these twenty books when I was feverish and trembling. I had already ordered them, two or three at a time, through the library’s website. And thus, like some of the answers Inspector Wexford comes across, they were just there when I needed them, welcome, inevitable.
There’s something different about reading a series of books with a continuing cast of characters. It’s somewhat like watching a television series – Downton Abbey, for example – where the individual episodes come to some sort of closure, but a narrative thread goes on relentlessly. In the case of Inspector Wexford, however, this narrative thread goes on for nearly fifty years. It’s like watching the history of the western world pass before your eyes. Or something like that. Minus political opinions, religious content, or philosophical conclusion – but full of the changing mores, the styles of costume, the social conflicts. Fifty years. I have yet to figure out how old Inspector Wexford is, but his children have grown into middle age and have children of their own. That thing we called “The Sixties” has come and passed, as have the seventies with their awful music, the eighties with their turmoil, the nineties with their awful disillusionment. It’s a new century and in the world of Inspector Wexford, we’re just getting used to it. Women’s liberation is real – to some extent (it’s still being debated). Racism is recognized and abhorred. Diversity is welcomed (to some extent). The world is more crowded, more competitive, but England is still a green and magical place. And, of course, full of murderers. Meanwhile, Ruth Rendell herself is now eighty-three years old. Speaking of formidable enterprises.
That human beings get older, and if they’re lucky, older and older, and then die, is pretty much a fact acknowledged in all quarters – despite what so many of us might want to think. One of the melancholy aspects of being a reader is that one has to face not only one’s own mortality and that of our nearest and dearest, but also the eventual disappearance of those who have given us so many versions of an alternate universe, so many other lives to submerge ourselves in, so many other puzzles to be solved (satisfactorily or not) by somebody else. I can’t help finding myself hoping that Ruth Rendell will still doing what she does as a nonagenarian, even if I’m not. Live long, Ruth Rendell. And of course, prosper.
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