A mysterious note that claims someone was murdered, a stain on a carpet that may or may not be blood, and a gold lighter with a leading inscription-- these are the only clues that Wexford and his crew have to what might not even be a crime. Mix in a slightly mad painter, three women who gave their hearts unwisely, and a young policeman in love for the first time and you've got a compelling mystery novel which is one of the best Rendells I've read to date.
The book has the elements we have come to appreciate in Ruth Rendell mysteries, including the slow steady unraveling of the mystery by Wexford and his chief assistant Mike Burden, methodically tracking down the few leads, when they don't even have the victim's body; and an array of real human characters, such as the aging Ruby Branch, who supports the man she loves, Monkey Matthews, an ex-con well known to the Kingsmarkham police, by renting out a room for the evening no questions asked; Noreen Anstey, abandoned by her second husband, now regretting the wrong she did to her first, living alone and having to sell off her remaining valuables; and Mark Drayton, the young police officer who never lets himself get seriously involved with any young women while he works hard to advance in the police force. It's Wexford's and Burden's keen understanding of human nature that helps put the pieces of this mystery together and leads them to the victim and the killer. The two play off each other well: Burden coming up with an important insight into the identity of the predator in the case, and Wexford pulling the sequence of events all together in a surprise finish.
"Wolf to the Slaughter" is also perhaps one of Rendell's most suspense-filled books (of the Wexford series). A local hotel has been letting one of its rooms as a love nest, but when a man with a knife one evening gets through with it, it is a room of blood, violence, and death. But whose? There's no corpse to be found! Wexford and Burden take over and the pages turn automatically after this, as Rendell's heros leave no stone unturned--nor sheet unfurled! Rendell has published many other books that are not in the series (she also writes under the name of Barbara Vine) and, with each, she clearly knows what she's writing about--she's a master here. And the surprise ending is handled masterly, too! (Billyjhobbs@tyler.net)