From Doon With Death is the first Inspector Wexford novel, as well as Ruth Rendell’s debut novel. Published in 1964, From Doon With Death is the first of 24 Inspector Wexford novels.
Chief Inspector Wexford is the title character of the series, but the book opens with Detective Inspector Mike Burden being called upon by a man named Ronald Parsons. Parsons’ wife is nowhere to be found, and Parsons insists that it is not like her to disappear. Eventually, her body is found dead and Wexford and Burden are on the case.
While many detective fiction books focus only on one detective investigating the truth, Burden is also a main focus of the book. Wexford is still the main character, and the one who reveals the truth in the end, but Burden investigates the case and the omniscient third person narrator follows Burden as well as following Wexford.
Margaret Parsons seems like an ordinary housewife who does not know anyone in the area other than her husband, but as time goes on more about her is revealed. Wexford finds books in the Parsons’ attic, all with messages inscribed to Minna and signed with the name Doon. Wexford wonders is Minna and Margaret are the same person and if so, who the mysterious Doon is. Clues lead to suspects, and Wexford and Burden have to untangle the complicated web of connections to figure out who it could have been. Everyone is a suspect, and Wexford and Burden run into many people throughout the case, all of whom could have done it and some of whom may be more closely linked to the case than they realize.
The twist at the end of the novel may be surprising or may be predictable, depending on the reader. In a modern context, it is less shocking and a genre savvy and mystery minded reader may be able to figure out the twist. I was able to predict the twist and the killer, but it was well into the book and even though I believed I knew the truth, I still had my doubts so I still wanted to get to the part of the book when the murderer was revealed.
The book is relatively short, with the edition that I read being just over 200 pages, and is a quick read. However, it was not very fast paced and while I was curious to find out the answer to the mystery, the book did not closely engage me. The work that Wexford and Burden had to do to solve the case—all of the discussions between them, phone calls, and interviews—are detailed, and while it was interesting to see the effort they had to put in and how much went into the solving of the case, it was not very gripping or suspenseful.
The book followed Burden as much as, if not more than, it followed Wexford. I was surprised that Burden seemed as much as a focus when Wexford is the main character, and this novel is his introduction in a continuing series. I did not find myself connecting to Wexford and I do not feel that I got a strong sense of his character and who he is.
To a modern audience, some aspects of the book may seem a bit outdated. Ruth Rendell even addresses this herself in the afterword of the 50th edition version of the novel, published in 2014. One aspect that is outdated has to do with the twist of the novel, so I won’t spoil that-Ruth Rendell acknowledges herself in the afterword that this aspect of the book is outdated. But in addition to that being outdated, Ruth Rendell says,
A book of this kind could not be written today. Manners, speech, social life and the pace of it, have changed beyond belief […] Those who are reading From Doon With Death for the first time may do well to see it as an historical novel, as distantly in the past as that Victorian poetry.
At the time From Doon With Death was published, it was considered ground breaking, partially for reasons pertaining to the twist in the novel. Rendell has been praised by many, for this and other works. She is considered one of the mainstays of British crime writing since the 1970s (Bradford), and she is credited with moving “both the detective and suspense genres toward serious fiction” (Rollyson). Rendell wrote over 50 books in her lifetime-she passed away in 2015, the year after the 50th anniversary of From Doon With Death.
In 1987, a TV series entitled The Ruth Rendell Mysteries began. George Baker starred as Chief Inspector Wexford. In season five which came out in 1991, From Doon With Death Part One and From Doon With Death Part Two aired.
I give From Doon With Death a 3.75/5 stars. It was an enjoyable read and a reader looking for a well thought out mystery with a twist would be well suited for this book. The mystery keeps the reader guessing throughout the entire book. However, it dragged a bit in the middle and there were not close relationships formed between the reader and the main characters. A reader looking for fast-paced action, suspense, and strong connections with characters may want to look elsewhere.
Bradford, Richard. The Novel Now: Contemporary British Fiction. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
“From Doon With Death (Inspector Wexford, #1). www.goodreads.com/book/show/748989.From_Doon_With_Death.
Rendell, Ruth. From Doon with Death. Arrow Books, 2014.
Rollyson, Carl, editor. Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction. Salem Press, 2008.