Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
These novels come under the same cover but it is intriguing to read the latest first. The Vault is a Wexford; in A Sight for Sore Eyes he doesn’t appear and the novel is more Vine than a Rendell.
For all that, the author meshes the two with her exemplary skill. The Vault is set in present time; Wexford is retired and, with Dora, using as their second home a coach-house on his daughter Sheila’s London property. He isn’t bored but slightly disorientated until he meets a former colleague and is taken on as an unofficial adviser in a macabre case that has the police baffled.
Four bodies have been found under the patio of a chic cottage in a select London street. Three corpses have been there around twelve years, the fourth only two. One female corpse has expensive dental work, a second none at all. A younger man has jewellery worth £40,000 in his pockets. The “vault” is a coal-hole connected to a cellar, coal was delivered by way of a man-hole but there is no access from the house; stairs go up from the cellar to a blank wall. Running threads through the plot are a valuable painting, a diamond ring, and a vintage car.
As he starts to unravel and yet connect the various mysteries Wexford is distracted by his other daughter, the accident-prone Sylvia, as she clashes dramatically with a former partner. That business settled, if disastrously, he returns to his investigations and having resolved three mysteries more or less to his satisfaction, he focuses on the fourth victim; the girl with bad teeth and, it transpires, no underwear. Now he goes solo and makes a mistake that puts his own life in danger. Home from hospital, he completes the denouement for his old running mate, the attentive Burden.
In retrospect the reader might feel frustrated that the fourth and most recent victim should receive so much more attention than the other three but then, turning to A Sight for Sore Eyes (the non-Wexford) there is a burgeoning sense of excitement as we learn that Wexford’s assumptions concerning those old cadavers were right and we know the killer from the start, and before his start. For Rendell chronicles with daunting logic to his inevitable end. Teddy Grex is a young man devoid of social conventions, of any feeling except for beauty. For that is his passion is so intense it is obvious that if and when he transfers his adoration for things to a person Pandora’s box will explode.
Rendell breaks rules. The plot here is a chaos of coincidences and a symmetry of design. She knows exactly what she is doing and when a solecism occurs one cannot help but attribute it to an editor error. And in the end, eschewing gore and torture and sexual violence who can provide a climax of such unsurpassed horror as Rendell in A Sight for Sore Eyes?
A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES originally published in 1999