End in Tears
Global warming is baking rural Sussex. During the hottest August on record, Ruth Rendell’s ageless Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, mopping his brow, finds yet another grisly murder. After a night of clubbing, 18-year-old Amber Marshalson is bludgeoned to death, leaving a grief-stricken father and an icily resentful stepmother who must now raise Amber’s infant son. A few weeks later, the corpse of another unwed mother turns up rotting in an abandoned house.
Rendell often addresses problematic social issues through Wexford’s caseload. End of Tears homes in on the commodification of fertility: When a woman wants a baby, how far might she go to get one? And what evil schemes might others hatch to exploit that desire? As usual, the saga of Wexford’s personal life overlaps with his professional duties: His daughter Sylvia has agreed to bear a child for her ex-husband and his infertile (and annoying) new girlfriend — a laughably improbable gesture and one of several uncharacteristic missteps in this intelligent but contrived mystery.
Since the start of her career, Rendell has interspersed her thoughtful, topical Wexford whodunits — in which the humane detective mediates our experience while solving the crime — with increasingly powerful Wexford-less thrillers, which express a chillier worldview. Compared to last year’s stunningly black-hearted 13 Steps Down — probing an inept but remorseless killer’s psyche — End in Tears appears formulaic, almost quaint.