Inspector Wexford has not been feeling well, and he has been farmed out to his nephew's house to rest, eat right, and exercise. Wexford is supposed to avoid thinking about police work. However, there are two problems. One, Wexford is bored out of his mind. Two, his nephew is a police superintendent investigating a juicy murder. How can Wexford fail to get involved in the case?
The victim is a young woman who was found murdered in Kenbourne Vale Cemetery. Who is she and why was she killed? This woman, it turns out, was living quietly in poverty under a false name. No one knows where she came from. Wexford starts informally investigating on his own, interviewing anyone who may know something about the identity of the dead woman.
The investigation turns out to be a puzzle that challenges even Wexford's experienced and incisive mind, and he makes several wrong turns before reaching the correct conclusion. He experiences a period of self-doubt and shame when he realizes that his powers of detection may be waning somewhat. He even considers the possibility that it may be time to step aside and let the younger generation take over. Wexford is a wonderful character--intelligent, charming and compassionate. It is always a pleasure to be in his company.
Unfortunately, the mystery turns out to be less involving. While looking into the case, Wexford meets a variety of people, all of whom contribute to his understanding of what happened to the dead woman. Unfortunately, the characters are not fleshed out very well and the mystery itself turns out to be too convoluted and far-fetched to be completely satisfying. On the plus side, Rendell's description of settings is detailed and vivid and she beautifully captures Wexford's torment as he tries to deal with his mortality and his imperfections. "Murder Being Once Done" is not a great mystery, but it is a good study of an policeman who is desperately trying to prove that he still has what it takes to break a case.