Monday, July 25, 2011

Ruth Rendell - Shake Hands For Ever

It has been a long time since a heady murder mystery was read so I picked up this book from my shelf. It was my first Ruth Rendell book, naturally my first of her Wexford series which apparently are quite popular. It too me all of two days.

'Shake Hands for Ever'(Arrow Books, Rs. 325, 261 p) begins with a delicious description of the character of Mrs. Hathall, a resentful old lady living in Sussex. Her entire life seems to be to provoke and manipulate others into discomfort and irritation, sometimes obviously and sometimes not-so-obviously. She spares no one - not even her own son, his new wife, commuters on the train, the police inspector, none. She is visiting her son's new home for the first time since he has moved in with his second wife, one she does not approve of. Anyway, the daughter-in-law fails her first test by not coming to the station, and when they go home, they find her dead. Angela Hathall is dead, found by her mother-in-law.

Inspector Wexford, middle aged, (father of grown up daughters one of whom is an actress) but in good shape, arrives and takes up the case. The curious thing about the case is that there are no finger prints at all. Except for a couple of new ones, there are almost none belonging to the inhabitants of the house. Autopsy reveals strangling. The bereaved husband is the most boring character one would ever meet - much less in a book. He is more interested in how the police is faring with finger prints etc. Wexford plods on, finding something of interest in Hathall himself. The bright spark in the novel comes from a widow Nancy Lake who flirts outrageously with Wexford. Somewhere in the middle of the book Wexford is taken off the case for persecuting Mr. Hathall whom he suspects of murder. From then on he hires some other guy to spy on his subject in whom no one in the world is interested. He throws up the conclusions in the end which needs to be hidden from the non-serious readers.

This novel was a huge disappointment. It dragged on for too long in the manner in which British novels do as they talk of the weather, the food, flowers, fruits, gardens, and all things not really focused on the job at hand. Bit like the Miss Marple variety only with lesser content that engages. But what really does not work for this story is the lack of shape of the murderer. He is so uninteresting, the crime itself so uninteresting that it makes Wexford look obsessive as he goes about solving the case on his own.

The end has its twist but it is a case of too little, too late and serves only for academic interest - you have already flipped through many pages cursorily looking for any action, skipped through some others where there is clearly no action. Too many ends are left for guess work, the motives for many actions of all the main characters are too weak and in the resolution, Wexford actually confesses that he does not know why certain things happened. Compare that with Poirot who would dramatically haul up one or the other in the audience and pin point him with some evidence. 'Shake Hands For Ever' does not work for me at all. The premise that you have a house with no fingerprints at all, except one or two, is an interesting one, but in creating a villain one cannot see, the story falls flat. Off with murder mysteries for a while now!

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