The Babes in the Wood, by Ruth Rendell

Recently, there has been some discussion on DorothyL, a mystery maillist, as to whether the inclusion of details about the detective’s private life adds to or detracts from a mystery, with readers’ opinions predictably split pretty equally. Some readers are interested in only the mystery itself and don’t want to waste time on the detective’s home life, while others find the personal information adds to their understanding and appreciation of the character.

My feelings fall somewhere in the middle. I like some information about the detective, if only because real detectives don’t work a case every second of every day, so a little of their private lives helps me suspend my disbelief. Too much, however, or the wrong type and it intrudes on the story.

For example, in Robin Paige’s otherwise very good series of Edwardian mysteries about a husband-and-wife team, Kate Sheridan (the wife) writes novels and considers her authorial persona as a separate person—named Beryl—with whom she carries on conversations and arguments. This is just a little too precious for me.

Or take Deborah Crombie’s excellent series about Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. Beautiful writing and delightfully tangled plots, but they are somewhat ruined for me by Gemma’s affair with her boss—Duncan—and the way this is not only presented as okay but also as without any repercussions, no jealousy from colleagues, no issues of power and authority, no cross-over between the professional and personal relationships. I find this unrealistic. In the later novels Gemma no longer works directly for Duncan.

I prefer mysteries like P.D. James’s series about Adam Dalgliesh or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, where we get just enough about the personal lives of the detectives to round them out but not enough to intrude on the story.

The Babes in the Wood is part of Rendell’s series about Chief Inspector Wexford. Two teenagers and the woman who was supposed to be babysitting for them have disappeared. It is not clear whether foul play is involved, and the investigation is stalled for some time while the rain-swollen rivers and lakes are searched on the assumption that the three missing people have accidentally drowned.

There is a great deal about Wexford’s home life and his concerns about one of his daughters, so much so that in another book I would be seriously bothered. I didn’t mind here, however, because the investigation stretches over several months so of course more of the detective’s life outside of work must intrude. Even more importantly, Wexford’s domestic concerns add a rich layer of understanding to the main story. I found the book entirely satisfying, not least because the ending, when we finally got there, seemed not only right but inevitable.

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