In the reality stakes, it's Scarpetta 1, Wexford 0

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The Independent Culture

Harm Done By Ruth Rendell (Hutchinson, £16.99)

Harm Done By Ruth Rendell (Hutchinson, £16.99)

Black Notice By Patricia Cornwell (Little Brown, £16.99)

RUTH RENDELL occupies a unique place in British crime fiction. In each of her novels she has woven a contemporary social issue - feminism, lesbianism, incest, illiteracy - into the plot of a conventional whodunit. Harm Done, her new Inspector Wexford mystery, is no exception. Here the core issue is domestic violence.

In it Wexford is, as he has been in so many of his recent investigations, struggling to keep pace with changes in his once sleepy home town of Kingsmarkham. People don't smoke any more; the beer isn't the same; pubs are called the Rat and Carrot instead of the Duke of Albion; he has to watch his language to make sure it is politically correct. Worst of all, the infamous Muriel Campden Estate - peopled by volatile, dysfunctional families and overweight benefit claimants with a sharp eye for media manipulation - has somehow seized centre stage.

Lizzie Cromwell, a 16-year-old with learning difficulties who lives on the estate, vanishes. She turns up safe, but with a peculiar story. Next Rachel Holmes, a middle-class student, disappears and reappears. Her story is equally odd. Then three-year-old Sanchia is abducted. Meanwhile Sylvia, Wexford's least favourite daughter, is doing voluntary work at The Hide, a refuge for abused women. She receives an anonymous call from a terrified woman.

As you would expect from Rendell, the working out of these disparate plot lines is a complex, thoughtful affair. Wexford, as always, occupies the high moral ground, contemplating the antics of younger generations with benign, if bewildered, paternalism. In other words, for Wexford fans this is a bloody good read.

But Wexford is not the only one struggling to come to terms with life in the Nineties. His creator is, too, - most notably when she describes a group of female volunteers in the women's refuge as "manning" the phones. So this book has the feeling of an elegy, a lament. Wexford does a lot of lamenting himself - for times past, when England was a cosy place peopled by law-abiding Miss Marple lookalikes. Perhaps it's time Reg took his long-overdue retirement?

Patricia Cornwell's eminent pathologist Kay Scarpetta has all but retired at the start of Black Notice. Her lover Benton has been tortured and killed; her beloved, difficult niece Lucy has gone under cover; her sidekick, the fat nicotine addict Peter, has been demoted back into uniform.

Kay, numb from the tragedy, buries herself in work. She rushes from one corpse to another, abstracting organs, documenting body parts.

A letter from Benton from beyond the grave, and the realisation that there is a plot to oust her from her job, shocks Kay from her grief. In addition, she has to take account of the demands of those she loves. Unlike in Wexford's cosy world - and like real people - those close to her respond to her generous gestures with bickering hostility. No one attempts to keep their language PC. They have other things to worry about. Such as staying alive.

Enter a sinister serial killer who leaves droppings of long, silky hair at the scenes of his stomach-turning crimes. Enter Interpol and sundry, shady investigatory authorities known only by their acronyms.

As usual with Cornwell, the plot is consummately fashioned, the suspense intense. And, as usual, a final nail-biting scene brings Scarpetta close to violent death. But there is also a new ingredient: emotional depth, of a quality to keep you riveted.

This is a very adult book - because of the risks Cornwell takes in exploring human vulnerability. Scarpetta sleeps with a representative of one of the acronyms. She gets so pissed off with best buddy Marino, she doesn't call him for days. She worries about Lucy. And learns much about herself.

This is a brave book. Scarpetta takes on new challenges, while Wexford creeps timidly back into his familiar world.

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