Every other week in 2015 I will be drawing one card from a deck to randomly pick from a group of short shories. This is an experiment to see if I will grow to appreciate short stories more if I give them a chance. As usual I have gotten very into this new project and wish I had chosen to read one a week. (My Deal Me In list of short stories is here. Jay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.)
So far I have had only good experiences. My second card was the 10 of hearts, and the story is "The Mouse in the Corner" by Ruth Rendell. Ruth Rendell is an author of mystery and suspense novels, but she also has written a lot of short stories. This one was first published in 1991 in Esquire Magazine, but I found the story in a collection titled 1st Culprit: A Crime Writers' Annual edited by Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin.
"The Mouse in the Corner" is an Inspector Wexford story. Rendell has written a long series featuring Wexford and his second-in-command, Mike Burden. In this short mystery, Wexford is investigating the death of Tom Peterlee, beaten to death in his own home. His body is discovered by his stepdaughter, Arlene, who lives in a caravan close by. Tom and his wife, his brother and his wife, and his mother all live in separate cottages in very close proximity to each other. Wexford thinks that Tom's wife is the guilty party but she is alibied by a friend who lives nearby. He keeps returning to talk to Arlene to try to break down her testimony.
At least in the earlier books in the series, Mike Burden is an opinionated and prejudiced man. This story gives a glimpse of that behavior and the contrast between Mike and his boss.
Why was he so sure Arlene Heddon had the answer? Mike Burden, his second-in-command at Kingsmarkham CID, said with contempt that at any rate she was more attractive than the sister-in-law and the widow. With his usual distaste for those whose lives failed to approximate fairly closely to his own, he spoke scathingly of ‘the Peterlee girl’ as if having no job and no proper roof over one’s head directly conduced to homicide.In the end, Wexford gets the answer but not the one he expected. The story has some interesting social commentary and a twist at the end.
‘Her name,’ Wexford said rather dourly, ‘is Heddon. It was her father’s name. Heather Peterlee, if you remember, was a Mrs Heddon before she re-married.’ He added, wondering as he did so why he bothered to indulge Burden’s absurd prejudices. ‘A widow, incidentally.’
Quick as a flash, Burden came back with, ‘What did her first husband die of?’
‘Oh God, Mike, some bone disease. We went into all that. But back to Arlene Heddon; she’s a very intelligent young woman, you know.’
‘No, I don’t know. You must be joking. Intelligent girls don’t live on benefit in caravans with unemployed welders.’
‘What a snob you are.’
‘Married welders. I’m not just a snob, I’m a moralist. Intelligent girls do well at school, go on to further education, get suitable well-paid jobs and buy themselves homes on mortgages.’
‘Somehow and somewhere along the line Arlene Heddon missed out on that. In any case, I didn’t say she was academically inclined. She’s sharp, she’s clever, she’s got a good brain.’
The story is quite substantial and satisfying. It was made into an episode of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries in 1992.