It seems that those who read Ruth Rendell's crime fiction are divided between those who prefer the puzzle plots of the Wexford books and the fans of her standalone novels, which are primarily psychological thrillers. I am in the camp that prefers the Inspector Wexford series, and I have read nearly all of them. For my taste, the standalone books are too tense and uncomfortable. However, many reviewers have compared this book, Kissing the Gunner's Daughter, to her psychological thrillers, and I suppose it is closer to them than most of the Wexford books. The book does have its dark elements and most of the characters (except for the policemen) and not very pleasant people.
The book has a wonderful opening chapter. Detective Sergeant Martin of Kingsmarkham CID drives his son to school and along the way discovers that his son has a replica gun in his case. Martin takes the very large and dangerous-looking replica gun and puts it in his pocket. It is his day off and he stops at a bank; while there, the bank is robbed while he is still in the queue for the cashier. Things go badly, and DS Martin dies at the scene. We are told from the beginning that this incident will link up to later deaths.
The bank robbery and the murder of Martin is not solved over the next few months. Then there is a bloody incident at Tancred, home of the wealthy and well-known author Davina Flory. Several members of the family are killed, and Davina's 17-year-old granddaughter, Daisy, has been left for dead. She survives and is the only witness to the crime. Her memories of it are shaky at best. On the face of it, the crime seems to be a robbery gone wrong.
There are many inconsistencies that the police cannot reconcile. Tancred is isolated and on a large wooded estate; tracking arrivals and departures is difficult. There is a friend of Davina's daughter (Daisy's mother) who has left town inexplicably and cannot be found. Daisy's father, never a part of her life, is investigated. Daisy's moods swing violently, sometimes she is inconsolable, sometimes euphoric.
Thus the story begins very well, and in general, it is a good mystery. But I was still disappointed in this novel. The ending was no surprise at all to me and it takes a long time to get there. A good bit of time is spent on Wexford's relationship with his daughter, Sheila, who is planning to marry a man that Wexford detests. Those issues are a counterpoint to his relationship with Daisy, with whom he has to spend a good deal of time, yet it still grew tiresome to me.
Even with my reservations, I don't regret reading the book, and I would encourage others to do so. Overall, Ruth Rendell is a good storyteller and very adept at creating interesting characters. Some reviewers consider it the best Wexford book. Many were surprised and shocked by the ending. My recommendation is to give it a chance; there are many elements to enjoy.
For a much more positive take on this book, see the review at The Passing Tramp.
Publisher: Mysterious Press, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length: 378 pages
Series: Inspector Wexford, #15
Genre: Police procedural
Source: My husband found this book for me in a San Jose bookstore, 2008.