From Doon With Death
An ordinary life. An extraordinary death.
The trampled grass led to the body of Margaret Parsons.
With no useful clues and a victim known only for her mundane life, Chief Inspector Wexford is baffled until he discovers Margaret’s dark secret – a collection of rare books, each inscribed from a secret lover and signed only as ‘Doon’.
Who is Doon? And could the answer hold the key to Wexford solving his first case?
Title: From Doon With Death | Author: Ruth Rendell | Series: Inspector Wexford #1 | Publisher: Arrow | Pages: 183 | ISBN: 9780099588542 | Publication date: 1964 | Source: Self purchased
Reading ‘From Doon With Death’, it was impossible not to compare it to the last crime novel I read, ‘No Way Out’ by Cara Hunter and consider the gulf that exists between the two books. Whereas Rendell’s debut was brief, straightforward, filled with memorable characters and centered around a tantalising mystery; Hunter’s novel is longer than it needs to be, needlessly gimmicky, forgettable and uninvolving. To put it another way, Rendell created her first Wexford masterpiece with deft, fine brushstrokes, whilst Hunter slapped the paint on with a roller.
‘From Doon With Death’ opens with the disappearance of a seemingly unremarkable woman, Margaret Parsons. Before long her corpse is found and the investigation, by Chief Inspector Wexford and his assistant, the wonderfully named Inspector Burden, becomes a murder inquiry. The books proceeds as you would expect a whodunnit to, with the detectives interviewing various people with connections to the victim and building up a picture of her life and last days.
Rendell pulls off the marvellous trick of making it feel like the answer to the mystery is only ever a page away. For most of the second half of the book the identity of the murderer was on the tip of my tongue, so close I could almost taste it but just out of reach. Despite its narrative simplicity, the book is so skillfully constructed and played out that it really is a joy to read. The impact of the denouement may have been blunted a little by the 50+ years that have passed since the novel’s publication, but it was still a very effective twist.
At under 200 pages it is very short by modern standards, but there is no lack of depth. The various suspects and other characters all leap off the page fully formed. Rendell manages to bring them to life with just a few words, making them convincing, distinctive and fascinating. As a result the emotional impact of the events that befall the characters grows over time, so that the end, when it comes, is truly tragic. Another thing that struck me was how little we learn about Wexford or his assistant Burden in comparison to the other characters. The two really are ciphers, with only minimal physical descriptions and no discussion at all of their personal lives. Instead they stand in for the mystery loving reader’s restless curiosity, making us focus, undistracted, on who might have perpetrated the crime. This is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by many modern crime writers (including the aforementioned Hunter), who pack their books with often unnecessary sub-plots about the lives of their investigators. It often seems that today’s writers feel they need every page to have some incident on it, rather than trusting the mystery to keep the reader engaged.
Clearly, modern British detective fiction owes a debt to its grand dame, Rendell. I worry though that the simple essence of what makes books like ‘From Doon With Death’ great has been lost over the years, as publishers push for books to be a certain length or to contain current popular tropes (multiple narrators being the one that often sets my teeth on edge). The stripped down leanness of this decades old book was a very refreshing change and made for a gripping, delightful read.