New Lease of Death is a relatively early Ruth Rendell novel, although Chief Inspector Wexford is already middle-aged and jowly. First published in 1967 and reprinted many times since, it is a fascinating period piece. It vividly describes a post-war England that is familiar to many – class-ridden, hidebound and generous only to those who obey the rules; still crime-writing territory for some authors, it has long since vanished. I’m not just talking about the topography, the clothes or the vehicles, but the outlook and mores of the characters. Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on the covering-up of an indiscretion which today would be regarded as neither shameful nor indiscreet.
All the later Rendell hallmarks are there: the cynicism yet essential decency of Wexford and Burden; the intricately-created family relationships; the credible twists of plot, the unspoken secrets. With hindsight, I’d say that one or two elements of the novel lack the sureness of touch that the author develops in her later work. What I found hardest to swallow was why Irene Painter’s second husband, Tom Kershaw, the delightful amateur polymath and full-time optimist, would ever have wanted to marry such a dreary, desiccated, sexless woman in the first place. More credible, but still jarring to the modern reader, is the busybodying intervention of the pious Reverend Archery. Nowadays he would be regarded as a prurient hypocrite whose son would have laughed him to scorn, but it is just possible that, when Rendell was writing in 1967, she intended the reader to take him at face value.
New Lease of Death is a period piece, but none the less enchanting for that. It is an undemanding good read, to be kept for cold nights on the same shelf as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.
Yesterday, London was in the grip of one of those gloomy, fog-bound days of which Dickens wrote so eloquently. The streets were grey and obscured by swirling mists so heavy that they fell like grubby rain on clothes and hair. People were scurrying about, heads down, doing damage with their umbrellas.
The British Library shone, as always, an oasis of light, heat, calm and coffee… and, importantly, cakes. I went to the café there to meet a colleague and, our business done in ten minutes, we had a wonderful time drinking in the power of George III’s magnificent book collection (which is displayed behind glass and occupies the full height of the building) while eating chocolate pastries.
My colleague had to leave at midday, which gave me an hour to kill before my next meeting. This was just as I had planned, because I had picked up from Twitter that a Crime Writing exhibition is currently on display there.
Sponsored by the Folio Society (which has apparently published quite a lot in the genre, a point to remember when trawling secondhand bookshops for old Folio Society titles), the exhibition takes an alphabetical approach to crime writing. It consists of twenty-six glass showcases, one for each letter of the alphabet, each one showing or explaining some aspect of the crime writer’s craft. Unsurprisingly, ‘A’ is for Agatha Christie; ‘Z’, less obviously, for ‘Zodiac’ – i.e. for crime writing based on the occult.
It is an inspired way of celebrating the genre. My favourite letters included ‘L’ for lady crime writers – I had not realised that until P.D. James published her debut crime novel, Cover her Face, in 1962, the fictional lady sleuth had pretty much dropped out of sight since Victorian times – and, of course, ‘B’ for Baker Street. The Holmes showcase included some specimens of Conan Doyle’s manuscripts (which I photographed before I was told to put away my camera by a security guard – I honestly had not realised that photography was not allowed!). I revisited many crime-related topics that I’ve researched myself, often presented in ways that made me regard them anew, and discovered some fascinating facts; for example, that Wilkie Collins’ estimated annual income from The Woman in White (published in 1860) was £60,000 p.a.
This equates to about £4.5m today. It and many of the other exhibits served to prove that, right from the start of its inception as a genre, crime writing could be made to pay. The exhibition, which is free, takes about half an hour to absorb. I highly recommend a visit if you get the opportunity – especially if it is raining and you are struck down by a pressing need for coffee… and cake.
Yesterday, making my first real foray from home since the snow came, I travelled by train to London.
I boarded at Wakefield Kirkgate, once a proud Victorian station of almost Downton Abbey proportions, now a sad and sinister derelict shell. It is quite a frightening place, especially after dark, and has been the scene of various robberies and at least one violent rape. However, it is also the station at which the magnificent Grand Central trains halt on their way to London King’s Cross. It is therefore well worth press-ganging my husband into temporary service as bodyguard. He waits on the platform with me so that, later, I can enjoy the luxury of the first class carriage, with coffee, biscuits, newspapers and wifi included, for the modest price of £60.
Perhaps because these trains are so luxurious, I began to think of Murder on the Orient Express, in which Agatha Christie skilfully shows that any of the passengers could have been capable of murder, before inviting the reader to identify who dunnit. I had to invent both a victim and also a motive for each suspect when I began to scrutinise my fellow passengers to guess what their favoured modus operandi for murder might be. Like Agatha Christie, I assumed that every one of them would be capable of the deed.
The man sitting diagonally opposite me was a businessman from Halifax. I know this, because, in a loud voice, he was telling the man sitting directly opposite (evidently a very new buddy) about his various boardroom coups and how he spent the money that he made: Mr. Conspicuous Consumption with a county veneer; he’d kill, to prove that he could do it, and want to ensure that both murder and weapon were as ostentatious as possible; and he’d wriggle out of punishment afterwards. An antique Purdey shotgun and a faked hunting accident would be his choice.
The new buddy, when he could get a word in, proved to be a genial and mellifluous Irishman: short cropped hair, John Lennon spec.s, shabby grey suit; one of the original sleeve buttons had evidently been lost and incongruously replaced with a bright pink one, slightly larger than the others. Conspicuous Consumption should be wary of him if they leave the train together. Mellifluous Irishman’d be capable of taking CC to a deserted spot, withdrawing a long, slender stiletto from one of the baggy inner pockets of that suit and thrusting it into CC’s heart, all the time keeping up the cheerful chatter about dead cert horses and racing greyhounds. Money would be his motive. Afterwards, MI would slip away through the wet and silent streets and fling his stiletto into the canal. The police would never track him down.
What about the Chinese Yummy Mummy, glamorously dressed to keep out the cold in champagne-coloured Rab jacket, fur-lined hood and aubergine leggings, her small feet shod in tiny suede boots? She was accompanied by a little girl of five or six, a mini-version of herself. Her immaculately made-up face had a wary, shut-in look. Once married to a rich man, perhaps; now a single mum determined to preserve their former lifestyle for herself and the child. If the rich man didn’t play ball, he would cop it before the divorce came through, while she was still legally the main beneficiary of his will. She’d have to be careful, though; she wouldn’t want to upset the child and, for her, there would be a double imperative to avoid prison. Poison would be CYM’s agent of choice, administered through some item of food delivered to defaulting rich husband when she was many miles from the scene. The police would suspect her, but they’d never find the proof.
Several seats behind me, an elderly woman wearing a long red coat (which she had not removed, though the carriage was well-heated) lay alternately dozing and looking round her with shrewd blue eyes. She had a mannish face and thick grey hair cut in a cropped, no-nonsense hairstyle; it was relieved from being a short-back-and-sides only by the crimped quiff swept back from her forehead. Mrs. Well-Upholstered Lady. She was a past mistress at her art. She’d had a long and eventful life: plotting her murders carefully; moving all obstacles as she continued on her relentless journey. She would have brooked no opposition along the way, whether it had come from troublesome lovers in her youth, her timid but irritating husband in middle age, or, more recently, the ancient aunt of whom she had been quite fond, but who’d already lived far too long when she’d begun to dissipate Mrs. W-UL’s inheritance on nursing home fees. A different MO every time for her: one of the lovers had been dispatched after she’d tampered with the brakes on his car; the husband had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas fire – she’d happened to be away at the time; she’d visited the aunt in the nursing-home every day, tenderly administering food and medicine, increasing the dose just a little bit on each occasion. Hers were all ‘perfect’ crimes: never suspected; never investigated.
According to my imaginings so far, every one of my train murderers would have got off scot free. Although in my novels not all the perpetrators pay the penalty, some are always caught. Otherwise, that all’s-right-with-the-world denouement of which I’ve previously written could not be achieved; so, I’ll have to re-visit. Which of the train murderers might be apprehended, and by whom? I’d put my money on CC and CYM: he, because he wouldn’t be able to resist boasting of his plans; she, because she’s a nervous novice who’s never committed a crime before (she is overheard on her mobile, spilling her heart out to a friend). MI and Mrs. W-UL? Too fly by far.
And who would catch CC and CYM? The guy serving the free coffees, of course: a detective in disguise all along. They made a fatal mistake: they should have travelled standard class.
My journey to London with Grand Central passed very quickly…