Ruth Rendell: The Babes in the Wood & Not in the Flesh


For the “In the Dark, Dark Woods” square, I decided on a Ruth Rendell double dip.  The Babes in the Wood and Not in the Flesh are books no. 19 and 21 in Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford series, and now that Rendell is no longer around to add to the series, I’m getting ever more nostalgic about revisiting Wexford’s Kingsmarkham (notwithstanding that IMHO Wexford did, probably, retire just about when it was really time).

Both books feature classic Rendell territory: the victimization of women (physical abuse in The Babes in the Wood, female circumcision in Not in the Flesh), child abuse, xenophobia, racism, the marginalization of immigrants and minorities (also including, in Not in the Flesh, “travelers”, aka gypsies) and, oh yes, all that amidst the investigation of a murder or two.

The title of The Babes in the Wood is largely symbolic, referring as it does to the title of a traditional children’s tale dealing with — you guessed it — two kids all alone in the woods, after their parents have unwittingly left them to the care of their evil uncle, who in short order proceeds to deliver them into the hands of murderers.  The tale was first published as a ballad by Thomas Millington in Norwich in 1595 — the late 19th century Caldecott version is available for free on the Project Gutenberg site — and has given rise to a proverb indicating essentially the same as someone being “in over their head”; i.e., being overwhelmed by situation requiring decidedly more experience than one really possesses. Rendell’s novel does in fact trace the eponymous children’s story to a certain extent, however, in that it concerns the disappearance of two kids and their caretaker during their parents’ brief absence from home — and I guess both the fact that there’s a wood on the cover (of the CD I listened to, as well as on that of the paperback edition) and the fact that the one corpse showing up some time after the kids’ and their caretaker’s disappearance is found in a quarry near a patch of woodland makes it qualify for the “In the Dark, Dark Woods” bingo square.

Not in the Flesh begins with the discovery of a corpse in a forest near Kingsmarkham, and a while later, a second corpse is found in a locked and abandoned basement nearby (besides, here, too, both the CD and the paperback edition have a wood on their respective cover).  As both murders have occurred quite a while ago, Wexford and Burden get to be their own cold case investigators, or rather, criminal archeologists.

Of the two novels, I slightly preferred the later one (Not in the Flesh): The subplot of The Babes in the Wood, which brings a case of domestic violence to Wexford’s family, is not quite convincing (once Wexford’s daughter Linda, who has been victimized by her boyfriend, is rescued, she seems to recover surprisingly quickly from her ordeal — quickly and fully enough to have another boyfriend in absolutely no time whatsoever, as if she didn’t have some fairly significant trust issues to overcome first), whereas that of Not in the Flesh — which was written at the height of the public outrage over female genital mutilation — left room both to explore the horrors involved in the practice as such and the cultural complexities involved, and it also served as an uncomfortable reminder that a human rights issue making headlines one day will just as easily drop from public consciousness as soon as more pressing concerns emerge.  Female circumcision is still as much of an issue in many parts of the world as it was ten years ago when this book was written, but at a time when the Western world is buffetted by everything from the Trump presidency to ISIS, Brexit and the aftermath of the 2009-2009 financial crisis, it hardly seems to impinge anymore. — As a side note, I very much enjoyed briefly meeting again Dr. Akande, Wexford’s doctor and one of the protagonists of the series’s 16th novel, Simisola.

For both novels, I listened to the audio narration by Christopher Ravenscroft, the Inspector Burden of the long-running TV series starring George Baker as Wexford.  (I do also own a paperback copy of Not in the Flesh, however, and consulted it for reference and plot tracking purposes.)  Ravenscroft gives Wexford a bit more of a country man’s accent than he has in the TV dramatizations — and, I have to say, in my head when I read the books — but he is a pleasure to listen to, and his obvious familiarity with the source material only adds to that pleasure, as does his classical stage training.

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