The Monster in the Box, By Ruth Rendell

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Friday 09 October 2009 00:00 BST

Ruth Rendell's son told her of a method for dealing with troubling thoughts: imagine a box into which you can put the disturbing images and shut them safely away. It's a good metaphor for a book about murder. The "box" is the method adopted by Inspector Wexford with an incident that occurred to him as a young policeman.

He encountered a strange character, young Eric Targo, and one momentary glance of Targo's bright blue eyes convinced him he was dealing with a psychopath. Targo was a devoted animal-lover nevertheless capable not only of domestic violence, then not regarded as a matter for police intervention, but, Wexford was sure, of murder. But his superiors would not let the young copper pursue his instincts, and Wexford was forced to put Targo away in his own private psychological "box".

Now, years later, he encounters the man again. Targo has acquired a whole circus of pets, and Wexford becomes convinced he is dealing with a serial killer. Yet what is Targo's motivation for the succession of murders he commits, apparently at random, leaving no trail to connect him to the victims?

If Wexford has sometimes seemed at the mercy of events, here we see his intelligence in full control as he both reasons out the chains of events and enters the killer's mind as he lies in wait for his victims. This is a superb investigator and we can see why Wexford has risen so high in his profession.

Wexford has always been the most human of policemen, and the mental processes of investigation into Targo's crimes take him back to the beginnings, not only of his own career, but of his search for love and meeting with girls who attracted him but proved too fickle, too clinging, or even dangerous - until he met his future wife, Dora, whom we have come to know well from later novels. If there was perhaps a trace of suburban stodge about the Wexfords, it is banished here as we read the story of their early courtship and passionate affair.

Interwoven with the Targo story is a modern tale: a young Asian girl who may be the victim of a forced marriage, and whose whereabouts are determinedly sought by a young woman police officer.

The huge contrast between the present and the past is brought home not only by the different issues which occupy the police but by the details at which Ruth Rendell excels: the terraced houses where two tiny rooms have been knocked into one, the close interest neighbours took in one another's lives, the outside privies, gone now along with the nightingales that sang in the woods of Kingsmarkham.

Targo haunted this world, as he haunts the reader: the monster is out of the box and it's impossible to put him back once this book has been closed.

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