INDEPENDENT CHOICE

Mary Scott on very English whodunits crime
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The Independent Culture
One of the pleasures of any mystery series is that you know pretty much what you're going to get. In Ruth Rendell's case (Road Rage, Hutchinson, pounds 16.99) the expected is Chief Inspector Wexford, who brings to murder in Kingsmarkham all his customary integrity and steady, logical intelligence. But this time there is more at stake than the solution of a crime: Wexford's wife, Dora, has been abducted.

The rage of the title is that of varied protestors who oppose the building of a new Kingsmarkham bypass. They cover the spectrum of activists: Friends of the Earth; the Sussex Wildlife Trust; Swampy-lookalikes; New Age travellers; a pagan who poses for Today wearing three rhubarb leaves; and Dora, with other respectable citizens who make up the local group Kabal.

But the first crime to claim Wexford's attention is only incidental to their efforts. In the process of the destruction of old badger habitats and the creation of new ones, the badly decomposed body of a girl is discovered. She is soon identified as a missing German hitchhiker and suspicion falls on a seedy minicab driver.

Before the action can move much further, the minicab office is subjected to a seemingly senseless (and violent) attack. People begin to disappear. Wexford suffers an agony of apprehension for his missing wife. She is held along with other apparently unconnected people by Sacred Globe, whose price for the return of the hostages is the abandonment of the by-pass. Dora's release is dramatic and her subsequent courage is remarkable as Wexford leads her through everything that happened to her which might constitute a clue to the location of her prison.

In the tradition of the best mysteries, Rendell does not cheat her readers. The cast of characters is finite, the clues are there to be spotted if you are sharp enough. But, whodunnit aside, a great deal of the pleasure lies in its solid delineation of place and character, and in the serious, highly moral deliberations of its endearing, complex protagonist.

Booked for Murder by Val McDermid (The Women's Press, pounds 6.99) is anything but serious. It's the fifth Lindsay Gordon novel, a jolly romp through the world of London publishing. It gets off to a cracking start when a bestselling author is murdered by the somewhat exotic means by which she has chosen to dispatch the victim in her new novel: death by exploding beer bottle.

The manuscript has disappeared, so has the computer on which it was written and all the floppy disks. Only the writer's agent, her editor and her ex-girlfriend know the plot of the book. Enter Lindsay Gordon the reluctant sleuth, hired to clear the name of Meredith, the ex-girlfriend.

Lindsay is tough, prepared to take chances and, as she uncovers the facts, ludicrously apt to put two and two together and make five. She is certain that first the agent, then the editor, is guilty; and she as good as denounces each of them, to her own subsequent embarrassment.

Meanwhile, she is up to a spot of skullduggery on behalf of her friend Helen whose partner has all but squeezed her out of their joint business. The two plot strands merge when Lindsay, after an evening spent hacking into the company's computer, is pursued by a hit man intent on silencing her with a baseball bat.

The denouement - which also involves computers - features a dramatic battle between the villain and Lindsay and her girlfriend. It climaxes with our battered heroines staggering into the street to find armed police surrounding the building. Along the way there are wisecracks galore, and the whole ends on a high note with a jolly good joke: this is terrific fun.

Fun is the last word you'd use to describe John Harvey's Nottingham policeman, Charlie Resnick (Still Water, Heinemann, pounds l5.99). A bulky, lugubrious man, he sets about his business of catching criminals with a world-weary air.

A central theme of the novel, and one which links Resnick's own relationship with the circumstances of the murder victim, is the female characters' ambiguous attitude to male violence. That's a bit of an old chestnut, but the plot is intricate and satisfying, with a substantial sideshow in the world of professional art theft.

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