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the complete review - fiction
The Babes in the Wood
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- An Inspector Wexford Novel
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B- : an interesting case, but not well presented
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "(I)f the four-decade-old Wexford series isn't quite as scintillating as it used to be, Rendell's gift for intelligent, coolheaded storytelling remains undiminished." - Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly
- "The Babes in the Wood reads more like a pre-script for the TV show it will become, minus the floods Rendell uses to create an atmosphere of apocalyptic deluge. She borrows a lot from TV, smoothly jump-cutting out of one scene and into the next. Scenes have the condensed feel of TV time, apparently lasting minutes when, we're told, they have really taken half an hour. Dialogue is not a Rendell asset (.....) Yet, for all her awkward invention, Rendell works for the reader. She successfully scatters her clues, flatters the intelligence and adds the frisson of the occasional deviant twist" - Chris Petit, The Guardian
- "The book is a page-turner but goes way beyond: this Wexford is a moving portrait of a man struggling to do his duty in a world of enormous changes, symbolised by the waters which threaten to overwhelm his beloved garden, and the violence which now plays a role in his own family." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent
- "Right from the start of this unsettling story, there are strong intimations of ominous forces raging out of control. (...) Through flawless character work, Rendell transforms what could be a conventional suspense story into a close, and at times cruelly funny, psychological study of domestic disorder." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
- "Like much of Rendell's work, The Babes in the Wood extends the conventions of the whodunit, going beyond a cool analysis of how and why a crime was committed, and building into a convincing, often troubling exploration of the way violence infects and damages everyone it touches." - Margaret Walters, Sunday Times
- "The gloomy claustrophobia of the Dade household, the hysterical wife and the bullying husband, have something of the feel of Rendell's best Vine novels, but as the plot winds on its proficient course there is none of the complex characterisation and motivation so striking in her books under that name. The pleasure instead is all in the maintenance of suspense. (...) Rendell's ability to spin out the twists and turns of the tale still astonishes. This is not a book that will stick in the mind, but reading it is utterly absorbing and strangely comforting." - Katie Owen, The Telegraph
- "There is a sense of going through the motions, a feeling that we have been here before. That does not mean that The Babes in the Wood is not worth reading. Rendell is a superbly elegant writer who cannot bore; her insights into warped minds and stunted emotions still have the power to shock and disturb. If this book had been written by a new author, I would have been enthusiastic. But for a Rendell novel it disappoints. The frisson is missing." - Marcel Berlins, The Times
- "Her new Chief Inspector Wexford novel, The Babes in the Wood, is spectacular: imbued with a chill atmosphere of menace and filled with a wide array of vividly drawn, all-too-human characters and unforeseen 11th-hour revelations. (...) In addition to its deft interweaving of plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots (...), The Babes in the Wood displays Rendell's trademark facility for nailing human personality in a well-sharpened sentence or two. (...) Rendell writes with chill, poetic precision, capturing character in a couplet and a whole terrifying world in a grain of sand." - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The water is rising at the beginning of The Babes in the Wood, a steady rain slowly flooding Kingsmarkham, the water even beginning to lap at Chief Inspector Wexford's property.
A woman calls to report that her two children, nearly sixteen-year-old Giles and thirteen-year-old Sophie Dade, and Joanna Troy, the woman who had spent the weekend watching them, are missing -- and she's convinced they've drowned.
It seems unlikely: there's water everywhere, but it's not very deep; the children (and, it turns out, their minder) are strong swimmers; and the house were they were "is miles above the floods".
Nevertheless, three people are missing, and no trace of them can be found.
Roger and Katrina Dade had been to Paris for the weekend -- their first trip on their own since their honeymoon.
Joanna, whom Katrina describes as her best friend, had come to stay over, to watch over the kids in the parents' absence.
There's little to go on, but Wexford follows what clues he can -- basically, talking to people, and trying to figure out what might have happened.
The Dades don't make it easy: Roger's mother admits: "My son's a bully and his wife's a hysteric", but readers don't need her say-so to have figured that out.
A strict parent, it's soon clear that the kids -- especially Sophie -- weren't too fond of Roger -- and Wexford can't help but notice: "What a lot of disliking went on in that family !"
Sophie doesn't seem to have had anyone to really turn to -- even grandma says, quite convincingly: "Mr. Wexford, I will be frank with you. I don't love my grandchildren" -- but Giles did regularly go to the services of a local cult-like 'Church of the Good Gospel', an ultra-Christian group that laid great store in 'purity'.
Wexford is surprised a fifteen-year-old boy would be interested in something like that, rather than show other kinds of interests more typical of a teen boy, but clearly the Dades have quite a few family issues.
The investigation drags on and on, because there are few clues.
Wexford goes on faithfully visiting the Dades a few times a week -- not that they're generally all that pleased to see him (it not helping that he rarely has anything resembling news) -- and keeps on what trail there is.
Not far from Kingsmarkham is Passingham St. John, where two years earlier a Peter Buxton had purchased Passingham Hall as a weekend retreat -- and he had continued to rent it out, as the previous owner had, twice a year, to the Church of the Good Gospel, who liked to hold a great ceremony on the grounds; in fact, the novel had opened with an introductory chapter, 'Beforehand', describing what they did there.
The place is significant because Giles had been at one of these events and thus was familiar with it -- and then because when there finally is a break in the case it's found there.
Found by Buxton -- though bizarrely and regrettably, since he doesn't want to get involved in things (and his young trophy wife really doesn't want him getting involved in anything which might detract from their lifestyle and comforts), he doesn't report what he found to the authorities, not for a ridiculously long time.
At least there's finally something to on -- and it leads to more questions about Joanna, and the circumstances of the disappearance.
The kids seem to have gone willingly, after all -- with her, or with whoever took the three of them.
Though if it was an outsider, it's strange that there was no car outside the house; whoever left, left in Joanna's car (well, her father's car, but she had use of it).
Joanna, thirty-one, has an odd history, too.
She was a teacher -- though: "like a lot of teachers, she wasn't very good with children" --, but abruptly quit over an almost trivial false accusation; she continued to tutor children.
She had been married, but only briefly.
Wexford tries to piece together a picture of her, but he only gets so far with what he learns from those who knew her; the full picture only comes together very late on.
When Sophie turns up, you'd think matters would be quickly cleared up but far from it.
Only allowed to question her with a family member present, Wexford doesn't probe very hard and while he does get a story from her, he doesn't believe it; it doesn't help that she also claims not to know where her brother is, since finding him is essential to figuring this all out.
Wexford does figure out where Giles has been hidden away, and he retrieves him; from there, all the pieces do fall into place.
Alas, Rendell has to lay them out by having Wexford explain the whole thing to his assistant, Detective Inspector Burden, over drinks and snacks at the local hotel.
"What does that mean ?" Burden asks, and: "What do you mean ?" as Wexford slowly lays out the case. "Get to the crucial weekend, Reg", Burden begs -- just as the reader does, by that point -- but Wexford takes his time ("What do you mean ?" Burden asks again ...).
It's a tidy and neatly explained resolution then -- but it really makes one wonder why all the bother with the whole story before: the summing up would have sufficed.
Better yet, of course, would have been if what all is revealed had been revealed, or at least begun to be indicated, to the reader earlier.
Wexford -- and hence the reader -- never encounters Joanna, and so learns only of her second-hand, and that in far too limited a degree; Rendell needed to make her a living character, and she didn't, turning what could have been a fascinating murder-story (yes, there is a murder) into little more than a newspaper-summary-story.
Matters aren't helped by just how sour the whole atmosphere is, and how unlikable the people.
The marriages and pairings are almost all unpleasant -- including a not well-executed or utilized side-story about one of Wexford's daughters and her new beau, who moves in with her --, and Sophie is also inexcusably obnoxious (not helped by Rendell having her use what Rendell imagines are teen-slang-words (which Wexford needs translated for him ...)).
Too much of the action -- from Buxton going about his business rather than immediately alerting the authorities to Wexford's very hands-off approach to questioning (he doesn't push almost anyone very hard, and if he's not exactly hoodwinked, there are clearly several points where probing and poking considerably harder were called for).
Yes, Wexford has a few distractions -- the rising water; his daughter(s) -- but, for a case which occupies so much of his thoughts and time -- it drags on for months -- he doesn't really dig very hard.
Rendell's basic ideas, and the figures of Joanna, the followers of the Church of the Good Gospel, and the two smart Dade-children do make for a very interesting scenario, but it's simply laid out all wrong.
While we do get to see how the Good Gospel-folk act, to some extent, and get to see a bit of Sophie and Giles' lives, Joanna remains the mystery-woman in the background -- until she's pulled out, like a rabbit from a hat, to explain everything.
It does not work well.
(Somewhat problematic, too, is that much in the novel has to do with relationships and power-struggles within them -- husbands vs. wives; parents and children; etc. -- and, often, sex, and Rendell is ... not great on some of that.)
As Burden says, when Wexford has finally explained it all to him, it's all: "A bit way out, isn't it ?" and, unfortunately, it is, Rendell tottering rather less confidently than usual way out there .....
The Babes in the Wood is readable enough, with some suspense and some interesting dynamics, but also kind of a mess, and disappointing overall.
- M.A.Orthofer, 1 October 2023
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The Babes in the Wood:
Other books by Ruth Rendell under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
British mystery writer Ruth Rendell lived 1930 to 2015.
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© 2023 the complete review
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