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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Vault

Ruth Rendell

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To purchase The Vault

Title: The Vault
Author: Ruth Rendell
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 266 pages
Availability: The Vault - US
The Vault - UK
The Vault - Canada
La cave à charbon - France

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Our Assessment:

B : ambles a bit much, but some sharp writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard A 21/7/2011 Mark Sanderson
The Independent . 5/8/2011 Jane Jakeman
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/10/2011 Marilyn Stasio
The Spectator B+ 30/7/2011 Andrew Taylor

  From the Reviews:
  • "No one hides the clues better than her; no one else creates such a pervasive atmosphere of almost comic disgust and dread. The act of cross-pollination proves most fruitful and triumphantly demonstrates that a vault, in addition to being an underground chamber, can also be a leap of imagination." - Mark Sanderson, Evening Standard

  • "This mystery is also an enormously enjoyable panorama of London and a hymn of love to its Georgian houses, which Rendell has followed through their varied fortunes from mansions to slums and back again to become the multi-million properties of the rich." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

  • "Three skeletons have turned up in the long-forgotten coal cellar of Orcadia Cottage, along with a fresher corpse that adds an extra frisson of horror to the fiendish plot (.....) Wexford hasn't lost his touch, but he must watch his step around the real cops, who find his methods rather "eccentric."" - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Vault is a little too discursive to be Rendell at her very best, and Wexford sometimes seems to be too good to be true. But the novel is sharp, astringent and humane. Even a second-division Wexford novel is something to be cherished." - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

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:

       Ruth Rendell's A Sight for Sore Eyes was a stand-alone novel -- and did not feature her Inspector Wexford -- but in The Vault she returns to the Orcadia Cottage that featured so prominently in the earlier novel, as the three bodies sealed underground in the wicked conclusion of that work are finally uncovered, more than a decade after they wound up there. No one had ever concerned themselves too much with the three people of whom all trace had disappeared -- which complicates the present-day police investigation, which starts out without even a clue as to the identity of the dead. But it's not just a question of figuring out what happened, and to who, back in the day -- which readers of A Sight for Sore Eyes already know. No, there's an added twist here, because a fourth corpse, of a young woman, was added to the original trio -- and that apparently fairly recently, two or so years ago.
       The Vault also features Rendell's familiar chief inspector, Wexford except that he is now: "no longer a chief inspector or a policeman or a permanent resident of Kingsmarkham in the county of Sussex". Recently retired, he and his wife, Dora now spend much of their time in London, in the coach house of well-off daughter Sheila's property; a chance encounter with Met officer Detective Superintendent Tom Ede brings with it the opportunity to try his hand at some investigative work, as Ede and his associates aren't making much headway with the case of the newly-found bodies and would welcome an old hand providing (unpaid) assistance. All this gives Wexford an opportunity to explore his new (second) home of London, too, as he wanders and travels around the city for much of the novel -- occasionally off-track, but even that working out well, as when one such path has him chance upon what turns out to be a difficult-to-find witness.
       Wexford no longer can flash his police ID or pressure people with his authority -- he has none. He does participate in the hunting down of clues and interviews with potential witnesses in the company of another office -- usually DS Lucy Blanch -- but also follows up with people on his own, and frequently reminds himself -- and them -- that they are under no obligation to say anything to him. Eventually, he finds:

He must become a private detective without any sort of license to practise, not even the fame which attached to a Hercule Poirot or Peter Wimsey, their names on everyone's lips, their exploits chronicled. His role was more that of the private eye -- no longer able even to occupy himself spying on adulterers -- who was reduced to searching for missing persons.
       Orcadia Cottage has changed hands several times in the period since the original three bodies wound up in what Wexford takes to calling 'the vault'. Among the oddities of the site is that there is no door to a cellar in the house -- indeed, the current owners weren't even aware there was a cellar -- and it becomes clear, when the cellar-stairs are discovered, that someone carefully bricked and closed it up -- but when, and why ? Even once the three bodies have been more or less identified, and the murder of the other two ascribed to the third, Teddy Brex, some baffling questions remain -- above all else:
One mystery was: why hadn't Teddy Brex paved over the manhole ? Surely there was a second. Someone put the girl's body into the vault to join the others. Why hadn't that someone paved over the hole in his turn ?
       Readers of A Sight for Sore Eyes of course know the answer to the first question, of just how Teddy failed to cover up the perfect crime (and instead wound up as the third corpse) -- and, nearly following in Teddy's footsteps, Wexford does come up with the right explanation -- but the second question is a key to figuring out who was responsible for the more recent murder.
       The investigation has Wexford talking to a growing circle of those who somehow might have information about what happened, both times. While no surveys were conducted on the occasions that the house ownership had previously changed hands -- the excuse for why the vault (and the house's cellar) were overlooked all this time -- the current owners had wanted to add-on subterraneously, and had consulted various firms to assess what would need be done -- and the police naturally wonder if, when inspecting the site, one of them might have made the grim discovery, and then returned to dump an inconvenient body of their own. Neighbors recollect bits and pieces from way back when as well, and a picture slowly forms, first of what Teddy got up to -- as even the Edsel he drove and his then-girlfriend are found -- and then of more recent events and who the second body might be, and how she wound up there.
       Thus hunting down of clues and talking to those who might have seen (or been involved in) things is all just a bit pedestrian, police procedural work that's slightly complicated by the fact that Wexford isn't officially a policeman any longer. But Wexford is a strong enough character that he's enjoyable to follow around, and his survey of London -- which is what all this going about also amounts to -- does also make The Vault a neat picture-of-the-times city novel. And there are enough -- maybe more than enough -- trips back to familiar old Kingsmarkham too -- including some get-togethers with now-promoted old associate Mike Burden.
       Apparently concerned that the mystery of the vault was not quite enough, Rendell shakes things up by tossing in a crime that hits closer to home, involving Wexford's difficult daughter Sylvia -- a brutal assault, whose circumstances are, initially, somewhat muddied. There's rather a lot to this, including the resolution regarding the perpetrator, but it is all rather hurriedly dealt with -- just as Sylvia very quickly recuperates. It does add some domestic tension -- Sylvia and her children move out of their house and into Wexford's now only occasionally used one, but Wexford and his wife are a bit put out by that -- but is definitely only an underdeveloped secondary thread to the novel.
       The present-day violence that does happen in the book -- there are two significant (if ultimately not very consequential) assaults in the story -- does come as a surprise, so there's that -- perhaps a contrast Rendell felt was necessary, given that the central crimes are so distant -- dead and buried, as it were.
       The Vault can be enjoyed without familiarity with A Sight for Sore Eyes, but it definitely builds on the earlier novel; part of the fun for those familiar with what happened is in following how Wexford and the police put together their picture of what readers already know. The novel also works quite nicely as a next step for Wexford, as he enjoys retired life but also finds satisfaction in continuing to dabble in investigation. As with his ambling around the city he's now spending most of his time in, a new environment for him to explore, almost everything proceeds at a much more leisurely pace -- making for a mystery that does feel very step-by-step-procedural, but does the incidental -- the views and observations -- very well.
       It's not a particularly suspenseful mystery -- thrown a bit more off-balance by shoving Wexford's daughters issues startlingly but only briefly to the fore -- but is certainly a good read. In particular, there are sections and passages where Rendell is in exceptional form: some of the writing, such as the novel's opening chapters, are really very, very good.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 April 2020

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The Vault: Reviews: Ruth Rendell: 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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