Review: The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell

I wrote last year of my teenage self’s rejection of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series and my subsequent luke warm appreciation of the books, but when the audio book of The Monster in the Box (the 22nd book in the series) was on sale for under $5 I thought it an opportune time to check in.

Reg Wexford spots in the street the man he believes committed a murder and got away with it; the first murder he investigated as a junior officer some 40 years earlier. Not unnaturally seeing Eric Targo like this puts Wexford in a reflective mood and he reveals to his fellow officer Mike Burden the events that occurred during and after that first investigation. He also spends a fair amount of time in contemplation of his early personal life, including how he met his wife and other events that took place prior to the first novel in the series. When Targo is possibly involved in a new crime things become more critical. At the same time Mike’s wife Jenny, a teacher, and DS Hanna Goldsmith embroil Wexford in a case in which they believe a teenage girl in an Asian family is being prevented from attending school.

The part of the book that deals with Wexford’s obsession with Targo (and Targo’s with Wexford) is compellingly told. I got a really strong sense of why the man bothered Wexford so much and how galling it must be for a policeman to know someone is guilty of murder but not be able to prove that guilt. That such a thing would become an obsession seems perfectly natural in the context of both this story and Wexford’s longer one that has played out over the series. I didn’t think that Targo’s penchant for playing games with Wexford nor his hurriedly described motivations for his crimes rang as true though.

When we move to the ‘case’ of Tamima Kahn and her family I found the book less successful all together. Both Jenny Burden and Hanna Goldsmith are well-intentioned but utterly patronising in their attitudes to the Kahns (and any other Asians encountered) and I’m not convinced that Rendell acknowledging this within the story (by having one of the extended Kahn family tell the two women they are being rude) makes up for it. And even if it does, for me this thread remains far less interesting because of the tone and made the overall book drag a little in places.

The Monster in the Box is apparently to be Wexford’s last outing and in some senses this is fitting in that most people probably finish their careers with a slow whimper rather than a big bang.  I can see how fans might think this an unfitting way for him to finish up his career because neither case requires much in the way of Wexford’s investigative skills to resolve and there is a generally unsatisfactory feel about the resolution to both threads. However as a non-fan I thought it one of the best, most believable portrayals of him that I’ve read, not only with respect to his obsession but also his desire to reflect on his own life and the social changes he’s seen in his time as a man and an officer.  For that alone the book is worth reading.

What about the audio book?

Nigel Anthony has a quiet voice with a hint of an accent which seems to suit the gentle pace of this story. He doesn’t do a completely different voice for each person but seems to pull off the changes in character with very slight changes in tone or volume. This is my favourite kind of narration and I would definitely look for more audiobooks narrated by Nigel Anthony.

The Monster in the Box has been reviewed at Crime Scraps, Mysteries in Paradise and Petrona

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3.5/5
Narrator Nigel Anthony
Publisher BBC WW [2009]
ISBN N/A (audio download)
Length 8 hours 49 minutes
Format download from audible.com
Source My collection

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5 Responses to Review: The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell

  1. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for this Bernadette. If this is Wexford’s last case, you are right, it is a whimper, but I thought it captured Reg’s aging quite well.

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  2. Bernadette – Thanks for this review. I agree with you completely that the novel doesn’t show off Wexford’s detection skills the way others have, but that does make sense given the time in his career. It really makes him quite believable. And thanks for mentioning your views about the other case – about the Rahmam family. I thought, too, that those inspectors were condescending and certainly not open-minded. It was a good reminder of the way detectives let their own prejudices get in the way of doing their jobs.

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  3. kathy durkin says:

    Good review. I was thinking of reading “The Monster in the Box,” but am now not so sure. Other blogs, including Crime Scraps, have also mentioned the condescensing tone of the inspectors. I have never been a reader of this series, have only read one. That isn’t to say I’m critical of it, it just never pulled me in. Thanks for a thoughtful assessment of this book.

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