Ordinarily I give short shrift to Amazon's “customer reviews,” unless I'm considering a new author or a new book by a familiar author. When I went to pick a Ruth Rendell novel my only experience with her work was a short story, “The Irony of Hate,” which I enjoyed. As my knowledge of her was limited mostly to the fact she was a highly esteemed British crime writer, I assumed my neighborhood public library would be a likely place to find one of her novels. An excellent assumption, as it turned out. I chose the likely looking Not in the Flesh, took it home and read it.
Only then, after finishing Not in the Flesh and curious to see what others had made of it, did I scan the customer reviews. Many praised the novel, but their praise seemed a tad strained, as if they were reluctant to say anything bad about an author who in the past had given them so many hours of pleasure. I read a few professional reviews, and therein detected a pretty much consistent faint tone of the “faint praise” damnation reserved for works by hitherto venerable authors. I forgot to check if Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times's dragon lady notorious for not pulling punches (especially with male authors) if she'd weighed in on Not in the Flesh. Perhaps she filed this quickie under the pseudonym “Larry” on the Amazon site. If so she captured my take to a tee:
At some point I didn't care enough to see the crimes solved, but I stuck with it to the end.
“Larry” was kind enough to give it two stars out of a possible five.
Another two-star awarder, “Timothy Crombie,” provided a tad more detail in his one-liner: This was not Ruth Rendell at her best. Wexford's ability to connect the dots strained credulity. The Somali subplot was completely out of place.
My sentiments precisely. If this was Rendell at her best, something somewhere clearly was amiss. Ordinarily I try find something positive in something I've forced myself to read to the end. In this case I could blame my charity on the fact I didn't pay for the book. Had I spent twelve bucks to download the Kindle version of Not in the Flesh I doubtlessly'd be reacting differently—not discounting the late Baroness Rendell of Babergh's winning so many literary awards in her august career merely reading the list would cure an insomniac. I gaped into the abyss of coma several times dragging myself through this novel.
So where's the charity, you may wonder, considering my borrowed copy cost me nothing more than a day of what precious little remains of my hitherto wonderful life? Hang on. To paraphrase Ike when asked what Nixon accomplished as VP, I'll come up with something. And I won't need the whole week.
The beginning intrigued me. Lots of British countryside atmosphere. Skeleton, human, found by dog digging for truffles. Almost immediately characters emerge from woodwork and multiply like fruit flies on a banana bunch. And that's just the police. Chief Inspector Wexford, anchor of Baroness Rendell's series, has enough assistants to field a soccer team. With the narrator and characters (in dialogue) shifting between first and last names, and titles, I rather quickly lost track of who was who and whom was whom. There were more coppers working this cold case than Ed McBain's 87th Precinct could muster to work the abduction of, oh, Justin Bieber if it happened in front of the Headquarters Building during shift change. Yet I stiff-upper-lipped, pip pipped, chin upped, and muddled onward.
The discovery soon thereafter of another human skeleton in a nearby abandoned cottage pricked my interest anew, but by then the cast of suspects in the first skeleton's presumed murder had grown to what seemed an entire village. Yes, this daunted me. Daunted me so drastically I considered grabbing a yellow legal pad and taking notes, to keep straight the names and connections and suspicions and lies and clues and obvious red herrings and serious distractions (like the aforementioned Somali subplot) and so forth and so on. I was saved from this torture by guessing fairly early what the motive was and whodunit. That's the problem with mysteries, though. Even if you think you've figured it out fairly early you just “gots to know,” as the punk demanded of Dirty Harry after buying the bluff that the .44 Magnum Harry was pointing at the punk's head might have one more round in its cylinder. That's the reason I slogged along to the gratifying end—gratifying because of that, that I'd guessed correctly, but also because it was the end.
Thing is, I might have managed cheerfully and without the extra coffee all of the faults described heretofore had Not of the Flesh been graced with an engaging voice instead of the constricted tedium of a chattering palace tongue.
Sorry, Baroness, not this time.
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]