Hutchinson, £18.99, 266 pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Vault, By Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell is bidding fair to join Defoe and Dickens in creating one of the great criminal cities of literature. Her view of London is a similar murderous topography, less squalid, but with the same tentacles reaching out between rich and poor. The mapping of this novel began over a decade ago with the publication of her A Sight for Sore Eyes, which featured "Orcadia Cottage", a charming old house in St. John's Wood painted by a well-known artist as a backdrop for his portraits of a devoted young couple.

Now, we follow the subsequent history of the house, which has passed through successive ownerships before a couple planning that smart modern development, an underground extension, make the horrid discovery of a pile of bones under a drain cover, together with a heap of jewellery. The mystery is given an extra twist when it is discovered that the bodies of four different adults, two women and two men, were hidden at different dates. The door between the house and the cellar has been blocked up – but by which of the successive owners?

Fortunately, the utterly reliable Superintendent Wexford is on hand, retired from his country town to Hampstead, where his rich actress daughter happens to have, as the rich do, a spare coachhouse. Wexford has a young pal in the Met who brings the experienced old copper on board as a consultant, playing the role of amateur detective. Along the way, he encounters the characters of the 21st-century metropolis: an aged inhabitant working a modest scam near the North Circular, outrageously exploited illegal immigrants, the architect occupants of a minimalist penthouse.

Wexford has a family mystery to solve alongside that of Orcadia Cottage. His other daughter has been stabbed, apparently by a maniac, when collecting her child from school. Wexford has to find this attacker while simultaneously pursuing the one clue as to the identity of the Orcadia murderer: a glamorous 1950s American saloon car seen in the vicinity. This leads him through London, from the lush purlieus of Hampstead to a brothel in Kilburn and into personal danger – he becomes the victim of a stabbing, "Britain's murder method of choice".

Wexford has to tread carefully with the Met, for he has no official standing, but he has never lost that dogged persistence which carried him through so many mysteries. He's also still in touch with his old comrade, Inspector Burden, a valuable ally and a trusted support during the unravelling of Wexford's family problems.

This mystery is also an enormously enjoyable panorama of London and a hymn of love to its Georgian houses, which Rendell has followed through their varied fortunes from mansions to slums and back again to become the multi-million properties of the rich. She, and Wexford, are the sharpest modern observers of the "Great Wen".

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