Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Best Man to Die - Ruth Rendell


The Best Man to Die
(1969) is the fourth novel in what would turn out to be Ruth Rendell’s twenty-four book Inspector Wexford series. The twenty-four novels were written between the years 1964 and 2003. Rendell, who died in 2015, may be best known for the Wexford novels, but the prolific author also wrote numerous standalones and short story collections under her own name or using her Barbara Vine pseudonym. All told, Rendell produced near eighty books.


The Best Man to Die begins with a stag party held in the Kingsmarkham and Districts Dart Club, one of the pubs in Inspector Wexford’s own stomping grounds. A small group of friends has gathered to boozily celebrate the next-day marriage of one of the men. They have been there for a while — and it shows — when the last of the group finally shows up and starts flashing a wad of cash around as he buys several make-up rounds for the others. The men only stop celebrating, and drinking, when the pub closes down for the night.


The next morning, while walking a dog his adult daughter has brought with her on a visit to her parents, Wexford himself discovers the dead body of the man who had been bragging about all the cash in his wallet. It all appears simple enough. The man has been bashed in the back of the head, stripped of his cash, and tossed into the river…a typical mugging of a man with too big a mouth for his own sake. Wexford, however, will soon learn that this is not just a mugging gone bad. Charlie Hatton’s is, in fact, just one murder in a string of murders that, according to the book’s jacket, involve “small-time gangsters, cheating husbands, and loose women.” 


So where does Charlie Hatton fit in, and who wanted him dead?


Bottom Line: The Best Man to Die is a solid murder mystery, one that gets surprisingly complicated considering that it is barely 200 pages long. But what surprised me most about it is how different this 1969 novel is in style from the style Rendell later developed. This one has a rather old-fashioned feel to it that is exaggerated by the period in which it is set. Looking back, the 1960s do not seem all that long ago, but this novel is a reminder that, for many, life was still much as it had been in the 1940s and 1950s. It is also a reminder of how rapidly the world was already changing. 


Ruth Rendell

12 comments:

  1. That's impressive that she wrote so many books in her lifetime...and not just average ho-hum books, but solid, interesting mysteries!

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    1. That number really is impressive. She wrote them over a 51 year period, but still, that's almost two published books per year. Quite a pace to maintain for that long.

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  2. I am glad you reviewed this. Back in 2009, I reread the first Inspector Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, and I was disappointed. I have all of the Wexford books except the very last one, and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue rereading them (or at least the early ones). But this one sounds worth reading, and it is even one I can get to easily. So I will put it on a list ...

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    1. Tracy, I think she got so much better over the years that comparing her earliest novels to those of her mature career or like reading books from two completely different authors. Even this one has a bit of a dated feel to it to me, so I'll be curious to see what you think.

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  3. Oh, I don't know - sometimes the 1960s seem like a lifetime ago! And speaking of lifetimes, life is just too short to read all these series that I need to read, but I really ought to get to Rendell's Wexford books.

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    1. Dorothy, the sixties seem so much like yesterday to me sometimes that it's hard to remember how different those days were when compared to today. The weekly/monthly wages Rendell mentions in this one are astoundingly low...and then I checked them out and found them entirely accurate. Little things like that kept striking me as more relating to the forties and fifties than the sixties.

      I think you'd enjoy the Wexford books, especially the later ones. I'm reading another of them right now, number 22 of the 24, and it seems like two different authors must have written them.

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  4. Isn't it funny when reading books that feel so dated? Last year my husband and I listened to a few Harold Robbins audios which we loved (A Stone for Danny Fisher was one) but, they really took us back.

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    1. It surprises me how some books age so much more gracefully than others, Diane. Many of the bestsellers from the sixties strike me as particularly prone to age worse than most. Those were certainly the days...and it shows in the bestseller lists.

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  5. Interesting that it feels so dated now. I haven't read any of the Wexford novels, but have read a standalone or two as well as some Barbara Vine. There were always several available at our library's summer used books sales. She certainly was a prolific writer!

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    1. 80 books is a lot for anyone, and Rendell's are all, IMO, of pretty high quality, so 80 books was quite an accomplishment in her case. It's surprised me how few of her books still show up on the shelves of local used-book bookstores, though. I'm glad I bought so many of her novels when I did, or I'd probably be forced to fill up my Kindle with them about now, and I much prefer owning a printed copy when that's doable.

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  6. I haven't read anything by Ruth Rendell (or the Barbara Vine novels) in years. I used to enjoy them, but can't remember even the titles!

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    1. Her titles were generally not obvious ones that would trigger a plot-memory, but they usually gave a more subtle hint of the book's theme, I think. It's hard for me to remember which is which sometimes until I force myself to pick up a copy of the book and read the flap. I do wonder how popular she is in the UK now that she's been dead for 6 years, and whether or not people there are still seeking out her books.

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