cover image Harm Done

Harm Done

Ruth Rendell. Crown Publishers, $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-609-60547-9

In her latest Inspector Wexford mystery (following Road Rage), the prolific Rendell shows that, like Wexford, she too is a master of indirection. Like a stout, aging British Columbo, Wexford hides his intuition and keen powers of observation behind a rumpled, grandfatherly facade. Three of the cases that he unravels in this satisfyingly complex work have to do with the abuse of women or children. The crimes range from the ridiculous (a petulant university girl and a mentally challenged girl from a low-income housing project are each kidnapped to do housework and returned for ineptitude) to the monstrous (Wexford and his men must protect a child molester who was released from prison while a rich man tortures his wife in the comfort of his spacious home). Rendell is too realistic a writer to link her crimes together in a sensational way. Instead, each offense galvanizes a slew of colorful characters of all classes who live in the suburban community of Kingsmarkham. Wexford's daughter Sylvia, a strident volunteer for a battered women's shelter, fills in her father on the signs of abuse and abusers, and it is a measure of Rendell's subtle skill that she manages to address a social blight without ever losing track of her plot or flattening her characterizations. Thanks to Rendell's steadfast devotion to what is real over what is mere theory, what comes through in her 47th book is the unique human mystery at the heart of a crime. (Nov.)