I have a somewhat hit or miss relationship with the writings of Ruth Rendell (and her pseudonyms) which is in part, at least, to do with the time of life during which I was introduced to her rather than any real or imagined failures on Rendell’s part. But I have always counted the 17th Inspector Wexford novel, ROAD RAGE, among my favourite mysteries. Though of course this is also due to quirks of my own personality as it was one of the first crime novels I came across which used the conventions of the genre to explore some environmental issues dear to my heart.
It doesn’t hurt that the book was published more than 30 years after the first Wexford novel, when crime fiction in general and Rendell’s series in particular had undergone something of a metamorphosis. From entirely plot driven to something with a more pleasing mix of plot and character development with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure.
Although it starts off with the unsolved murder of a German backpacker the book soon leaves this crime behind (until very near the end) and its subsequent events concern a proposed road bypass for Kingsmarkham which draws the ire of protesters. Opposition takes a variety of forms from fairly passive meetings to those who build temporary homes amidst the tree tops of threatened woods to over-the-top activism by a group calling itself Sacred Globe. This group kidnaps a seemingly random selection of local citizens with the aim of ransoming them in return for the cessation of the bypass construction.
I enjoy the fact that this is one of that rare breed of crime novels that is not primarily concerned with a murder investigation. Even for a fan of the genre it is nice not to be dealing with death all the time. I’m also impressed with the way Rendell makes this book personal to her main characters. It’s a bit of a spoiler but I can’t really talk about the book without mentioning that Reg’s wife Dora is one of the kidnap victims. I’m normally bored when the protagonist and/or their loved ones are targeted by criminals but Rendell does a great job here of making Dora’s involvement entirely believable. In addition she uses the case to really explore the personal life and thoughts of Wexford (a huge contrast from the first book of the series in which it appears as if Wexford and his offsider do not exist outside the police station). Reg’s reaction to Dora’s disappearance and the events which follow it are a terrific character study of the emotions of someone who is not overtly emotional.
The environmental component of the book is also well done, teasing out different aspects of England’s changing physical landscape and different people’s reaction to that. Even Wexford is sympathetic to the protesters, though of course it would be improper for him to let on to anyone but Dora. As is often the case with Rendell’s books the issue of class is inextricably woven into the story too. On re-reading the book nearly 20 years after its original publication I was struck by the way both of these elements still feel reasonably contemporary, even though actual protest might take a different form in the modern world of social media activism. Or perhaps I am just nostalgic for a period when taking a stand required more than changing one’s twitter icon.
I’m glad to find that I still enjoy ROAD RAGE and can happily still qualify it as one of my favourites. I think it could easily be read as a standalone novel, in case any of you haven’t dipped your toes into the Wexford list and are wondering if you should bother.
Unlike almost every other UK television crime series the Ruth Rendell Mysteries does not air on high rotation on Australian screens. Indeed I’m not sure the entire series has ever run here which is somewhat baffling as we devour all the rest (Morse, Lynley, Lewis, Vera, the seemingly never-off Midsomer Murders) so you’d think someone would be wanting to cash in on the popularity. According to Wikipedia there are 55 Wexford episodes of the series telling a total of 25 stories with Road Rage as episodes 53 and 54. I found these episodes, which first aired in the UK in 1998, in a DVD set paired with Harm Done. It is apparently impossible to acquire the entire series as a set legally.
For fans of the faithful adaptation you would be hard pressed to find a better example. The 3.5 hour running time allows for much of the original story to be told and there are very, very few changes from the original. Great swathes of the dialogue are copied directly from the book and the narrative arc is virtually identical. It’s no surprise then to discover that Rendell has a writing credit for all the episodes of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries. The only significant change is that in the book we do not learn anything of Dora’s experiences as a kidnap victim until after she is released, while in the adaptation we see those experiences unfold ‘in real time’ rather than in flashback. It probably lessens the suspense a little but it really isn’t a big deal.
Such faithfulness has the potential to be a little on the boring side even for fans of the original but the interpretation one looks for in an adaptation comes, in this instance, from the excellent cast. There really isn’t a dud in the bunch including George Baker as Reg Wexford, Louie Ramsay as Dora and Christopher Ravenscroft who embodies the spirit of Wexford’s offsider Mike Burden. All three have a decent amount of screen time which shows off their individual talents as well as allowing their differing relationships to be depicted. The large supporting cast is also excellent and the visual design – especially of the protesters and their tree-top world – really brings Rendell’s setting to life.
I guess it’s equal on this occasion. Both do their jobs very well and the only real critique I could offer is that you probably don’t need to read/see both as they tell identical stories. Unless like me you’re a fan of seeing adaptations just for the sake of it.
Have you read the book and/or seen the adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?