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.