Minds of the mystery solvers

Minds of the mystery solvers

Inspector Wexford or Commander Dalgliesh? Or to put it another way: Ruth Rendell or P D James? Who is better? I began asking myself this after a month of watching, back to back, the complete Wexford and Dalgliesh mysteries made for television.

All 23 Inspector Wexford mystery novels of Rendell and the 10 Commander Dalgliesh novels of James; they were a complete pleasure, and it was tempting to compare them. But I realised it wasn’t fair to James or Rendell to judge their work — or even view their work — as adapted for television.

So, I’ve made this a two-part column on both series, this one on Wexford and the next one to be on Dalgliesh. I was so sure that at the end of watching both the series, I would have to conclude that James was better, but I was surprised — pleasantly surprised — that I found Rendell not just as compelling, but even better. And saw for the first time why Ruth Rendell has been called, “the best mystery writer anywhere in the English-speaking world.”


The novels of James are written better perhaps, but in the end, it is Rendell who provides more satisfying surprises.


My entire interest in watching all the Wexford mysteries was because they were not available in the first place. That’s a funny thing to say, since I’ve just said I have watched all 23 of them, but you see, I had to hunt for most of them all over the world.


Except for about five Wexford mysteries, the rest are not available on DVD commercially to buy anymore. (Those who bought the entire series when it came out on VHS in the early 90s are the lucky few to possess them). After much scrambling to get hold of them, I somehow managed to find bootleg copies of them via various online sellers around the world.

Of the two actors — George Baker as Reg Wexford and Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgleish — I clearly preferred Baker from the start. When Baker/Wexford is on the screen, your attention never wavers; in fact, if your interest has been waning in the plot or the proceedings, the appearance of Baker’s Wexford makes you lean forward with interest. His manner is focused, his delivery, crackling, and his warmth in his interactions with suspects, reassuring.


Rendell, in an interview (to Dale Salwak in Mystery Voices), said that Wexford had been modelled on her father. Her father had been a school teacher, but he spoke and thought the way Wexford did. She admitted that Wexford is also a lot like her. What are Wexford’s interests outside of work? He likes to read literary biographies and occasionally literary criticism, but not fiction. On more than one occasion, he solves the mystery because of something he read in a literary work –— quite poetic, I thought.


When his wife Dora asks him why he found pleasure in reading literary non-fiction, he replies that it is a form of education and the purpose of education is “to turn the soul’s eye towards the light.” And that’s the other fascinating element in the Wexford mysteries: Wexford’s family life, especially his relationship with his daughters. Usually I am bored with the personal lives of detectives, wanting them to get on with the case, but with Wexford, it only makes the story more absorbing.


The Wexford novels were compact, precise, and I don’t think the comparatively briefer length of the TV series (as opposed to the long three-part Dalgliesh adaptations) did the books any harm. They suited each other perfectly. And that other stock trope in the formal mystery — the detective hero’s Watson — is nicely delineated over the series. Inspector Mike Burden is Chief Inspector Wexford’s associate and their shop-talk is engaging to watch, as you watch not just them become friends, but their families become close as well.

Christopher Ravenscroft as Burden was again perfect casting for the part of the younger but more rigid and moralistic policeman.

Wexford loses his temper freely and often unfairly with Burden, but they still share a healthy, respectful, working relationship. Since Wexford investigates crimes in and around the market village of Kingsmarkham (a fictional place in Sussex), the setting brings with it a certain intimacy, the familiar cozy element — but watch out, because the plots are also dark and disturbing.

Anyone even a little familiar with Rendell’s books will know that disturbed families and ‘angry, driven women’ are at the heart of her plots. “Forensics really bore me,” she said in the Mystery Voices interview. “I’m not interested so much in whodunit as why done it or who it was done to — why people act as they do — and the question can never be fully answered.” Perhaps because family has such a pull, such a hold on many of us that we find her mysteries so compelling?


To my mind, the best of the Wexford adaptations are Wolf to the Slaughter, From Doon with Death, Shake Hands Forever, Put on By Cunning, Road Rage and Simisola. So, how does she manage the surprises and turnarounds? Part of the answer is in something she once said teasingly: “In Wexford, I usually write the book with one killer in mind and at the end change it — of course I have to go back and rewrite chapters, but if I can deceive myself, you see, I can deceive even the sharpest of my readers!”

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