Books: Over to the dark side

Harm Done by Ruth Rendell Hutchinson pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
A teenager goes missing, offering an unlikely account of her lost hours when she turns up. Another young woman disappears, re-emerging with an equally improbable story, an event quickly followed by the apparent kidnapping of a toddler. Chief Inspector Wexford is still wondering whether the cases are linked when the inhabitants of a local council estate attack the home of Tommy Orbe, a paedophile just released from prison. Like Rendell's last Wexford novel, Road Rage, whose plot centred on eco-terrorism, her latest offering tackles a contemporary and contentious subject, this time child abuse.

Wexford is as disgusted by the mob violence which erupts as he is by Orbe's record, although he is unable - unusually for him - to sympathise with the pathetic old man, who has nowhere else to go. At the same time, his daughter Sylvia is working as a volunteer in a local refuge for battered women, forcing him to reflect on the whole question of abusive behaviour. For the first 150 pages of this eventful novel, it is far from clear which of the various plot strands will eventually dominate, although the uncertainty is mitigated by Rendell's almost Dickensian skill in filling it with memorable characters.

It is hard to think of another crime writer who so effortlessly incorporates real events, such as the current ugly panic over paedophilia, into genre fiction, and in a serious manner. Where a lesser author might treat similar themes, yet produce something that feels facile and exploitative, Rendell's detective fiction stands almost alone as a chronicle of the dark side of modern life.

Her grasp of the small shifts and alterations which have gradually transformed post-war British culture is very nearly unparalleled. Her early Wexford novels, written more than 30 years ago, reflected the conventions of the traditional crime novel and the stable society of which her invented Sussex town, Kingsmarkham, was a microcosm. Yet there was always a sense of the real nastiness of human nature. Rendell never seems to have tired of Wexford and his sidekick Mike Burden, writing about them in a way which reveals her fondness for this fictional world on every page.

In Harm Done, she cleverly interweaves several plots, addressing the problem of what to do with working-class sex offenders while at the same time demonstrating how helpless - or reluctant - society is to deal with a known abuser from a different class. Fans of the traditional detective novel may be dismayed by how long they have to wait before a murder is committed, but once the long-anticipated event happens, Rendell offers sufficient clues and red herrings to satisfy the most dedicated puzzle- solver, with a compassionate sensibility which lifts this novel miles above the mechanical solutions of the so-called Golden Age detective novel. Harm Done is a vivid demonstration of Rendell's contribution to contemporary crime fiction: her willingness to experiment with how much realism this rather artificial genre can stand.

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