On April 14th, Acorn Media released set four of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, featuring Inspector Wexford in two feature-length mysteries from the popular television series of the 1990s. Rendell is widely recognised as one of the most successful crime writers writing today and her Wexford stories made the leap to television particularly well. With perfect casting and challenging intelligent stories, these Wexford mysteries are as gripping today as they were when first broadcast.
Ruth Rendell's interest as a crime writer has always been the psychology behind the crime. She knows all the tricks of the Golden Age crime writers like Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham; and, Inspector Wexford, her avuncular, honest and thorough country copper, fits very well into the tradition of crime solving policemen. But Rendell takes this image of normality and places him in a very contemporary setting with contemporary issues, issues that often stray into very abnormal territory. The very politically and socially aware author often has written about people on the edges of society, people who don’t fit in. Rendell serves up a realistic world—which always comes with a twist.
"Road Rage" and "Simisola" are perfect examples of the way Rendell juxtaposes her country copper with very current social anxieties. "Road Rage" deals with the thin line between activism and terrorism as Wexford tries to deal with the clash between environmental protesters and security forces, a clash that soon involves innocent pawns, including his wife, Dora. In "Simisola," Wexford’s case involving a missing girl is soon complicated by racial and class misunderstandings—some of which are his own. Rendell never shies away from challenging Wexford’s own assumptions, sometimes through his sidekick, Burden (the excellent Christopher Ravenscroft) and sometimes by the people he investigates.
The main focus of "Simisola" is the idea of making invisible people visible. Rendell’s solving of a crime, while satisfying our need for justice, never solves the underlying problem that produced the crime. Rather than restoring everything to its rightful place, Wexford’s catching of a criminal only exposes the real crime we would rather not see, because there are no easy answers.
Rendell’s writing is very atmospheric, which make her novels excellent choices to adapt for television. She never chooses to adapt her own stories, but with Wexford, the author was involved to a degree with the production, ensuring fidelity to the essence of her plots and most especially to her characters. For this series, the casting was a stroke of genius: George Baker as Wexford is one of the most satisfying matches of actor to character on television. Under Baker’s sure hands, Wexford walks off the page and onto the screen, to the point Rendell admits in her later novels, she pictures the actor when writing Wexford. Christopher Ravenscroft is also a joy as the uptight but efficient Burden, and the two men’s partnership is subtle, nuanced and occasionally explosive.
"Road Rage" (adapted by George Baker) and "Simisola" are excellent adaptations of Rendell’s stories, and the "Super Sleuths: Inspector Wexford" special feature on the DVD is also wonderful. This documentary has interviews with the people behind the scenes as well as many of the actors, including George Baker, Christopher Ravenscroft and Louie Ramsay. Unfortunately, Ruth Rendell does not appear, but she does feature in many anecdotes.There is a serviceable biography of Rendell as another special feature.
The DVD is sold as a two volume boxed set, with a running time of 353 minutes. The price is $39.99 and fans will find it a bargain.