There was a time when I devoured each new Ruth Rendell book as it appeared, but she became so prolific that, in the end, I faltered, and I managed to miss a couple of Wexfords, including Harm Done. I’ve now belatedly watched the television version, and I was very impressed. It gives the impression of being reasonably faithful to the original, not least by virtue of its sheer complexity.
Rendell manages to tackle three difficult subjects – domestic violence, vigilante mob violence, and child abduction – and to combine a deep understanding of character with a clever plot, full of unexpected turns. In some of her recent books, I have felt her attempts at social and political commentary have detracted from the impact of the story, but that was not the case here, where the various elements of ‘message’ and ‘mystery’ were skilfully blended.
At first, it seems as though the main story will involve the abduction of two teenage girls from a bus stop. The girls tell a tale, once they come back home, that reminded me slightly of the Elizabeth Canning affair – but Rendell gives it a modern and chilling, yet ultimately melancholy, twist.
In fact, the central characters are a wealthy and seemingly devoted couple who have three young children. The husband, a successful businessman, has recently been receiving hate mail. When their daughter goes missing, it seems as though a paedophile is at work, and local vigilantes vent their fury on a woman whose elderly husband, just released from prison after serving a sentence for killing a child, has come to live with her because he has nowhere else to do. The unreasoning rage of the mob is very well captured, and the story-line has lashings of irony.
It turns out that the explanation for the little girl’s disappearance is nothing to do with paedophiles, but it rings frighteningly true. Clare Holman, an under-rated actor who was excellent in both Fallen Angel and Lewis, is very good as the unhappy wife. And George Baker and Christopher Ravenscroft excel as Wexford and Burden. I enjoyed and admired this episode. I switched on expecting a bit of comfort viewing – in fact, it was an uncomfortable story, but a memorable one.