I’ve read only a few of Ruth Rendell’s Detective Chief Inspector Wexford books, although I must have watched all the TV dramatisations, with George Baker playing the part of Wexford. The books are set in Kingsmarkham, a fictional English town. The first of these, From Doon with Death, is also her first novel and was published in 1964. The full list of her books is on Fantastic Fiction.
Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (first published in 1992) is the fifteenth book in the series. It begins with the shooting of Sergeant Martin of Kingsmarkham CID whilst he was standing in a queue at the local bank. This seemed to trigger a chain of more murders as a few months later Wexford and Burden are faced with solving the brutal murders of author Davina Flory, her husband and daughter, shot dead at Tancred House. Only Daisy, her granddaughter survived, and wounded in the shoulder she had crawled to the phone to call for help. Her account of what happened is understandably confused. They had all been eating their dinner when they heard noises of someone upstairs. She only saw one of the intruders:
‘He came in …’ Her voice went dead, automatic machine tones. ‘Davina was still sitting there. She never got up, she just sat there but with her head turned towards the door. He shot her in the head, I think. He shot my mother. I don’t know what I did. It was so terrible, it was like nothing you could imagine, madness, horror, it wasn’t real, only it was – oh, I don’t know … I tried to get on to the floor. I heard the other one getting a car started outside. The one in there, the one with the gun, he shot me and I don’t know, I don’t remember … (page 70)
I had my suspicions quite early on in the book about the murder, but it was only intuition – I couldn’t put my finger on the reason for my thoughts. As I read on I thought I was wrong, as Ruth Rendell added more and more detail, and I was lost in all the red herrings she introduced. But then I began to suspect that I might have been right after all.This is an excellent book, both for the mystery element and for the characterisation, even the lesser characters stand out as real people.
I like Wexford, a detective with a happy marriage, although his relationship with his daughters, especially the younger daughter, Sheila is not so good. He hates her fiancé, author Augustine Casey, and this forms an interesting sub plot in which Rendell expresses her views on literary scene poseurs and post-modernist literature. Casey is an ‘extreme post-modernist‘ who ‘had already written at least one work of fiction without characters.‘ (page 97) Dora says that Casey is a very clever man, perhaps a genius and Wexford responds:
God help us if you’re going to call everyone who was shortlisted for the Booker prize a genius. (page 95)
I did not want to put this book down and just wish that it hadn’t sat unread on my bookshelves for about 20 years (including being hidden away for a few years due to being double shelved). But then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it now – I think it’s much better than some of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s later books.
A note on the title:
‘Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter’ is a phrase derived from a tradition in the Royal Navy, as Wexford explains:
It means being flogged. When they were going to flog a man in the Royal Navy they first tied him to a cannon on deck. Kissing the gunner’s daughter was therefore a dangerous enterprise. (page 340)
A dangerous enterprise indeed not only for the victims but also for the culprits, one of whom took enormous risks. (And my intuition proved partly right in the end.)