In No Man's Nightingale, Rendell’s most frequent protagonist shows no signs of stopping or even of allowing himself to become outdated. Here Wexford wrestles with the matter of the death of a local vicar, Sarah Hussain. With Wexford retired, it’s left to Mike Burden to steer this murder case though the various corridors of the Kingsmarkham Constabulary. The fact that Sarah was a single mother coupled with her racial origins adds to real sense of unease permeating this case.
No one knows better how much Wexford would wish to be involved in solving the mystery of who killed Sarah, one of many women in the UK to have been born of a white Irishwoman and an Indian immigrant. From the first meeting with Burden, Wexford senses that something is not right. When he hears of Sarah’s death from his cleaner, Maxine, and from what he reads in The Guardian (and of course seen when passing the vicarage), he becomes certain that Sarah’s murder stemmed from the fact she was one of the
few women of mixed-race parentage to be ordained a priest of the Church of England.
Sarah’s shattered seventeen-year-old daughter, Clarissa, is sent off to live with family friend Georgina Bray. Burden and Wexford begin the long and difficult task of interviewing the various suspects, including chain-smoking Dennis Cuthbert, who—with his “heavy shoulders and thick neck, a muscular body and big hands”—makes it quite clear that he disapproved of Sarah’s changes to the vicarage’s Sunday service.
Wexford clings to his notion of “apologetic racism” while according to Maxine there were those in this place who “couldn’t stomach [Sarah] being colored” or “took against her for being a woman.” Traditionally minded Cuthbert appears to be the obvious suspect. Burden, however, clings to his theory that whoever killed Sarah figured significantly in her past. He’s certain that gardener Duncan Crisp might join his sparse list of suspects. Either Crisp is guilty himself or he saw someone else come across the vicarage garden during the afternoon and enter Sarah’s house by the back door.
Ultimately, the machinations surrounding Rendell’s various supporting characters are much more interesting than that of Sarah’s death. And for the better part of the book, the whole murder plot takes a back seat to the other, more intriguing question: the riddle of Clarissa’s father and Sarah’s relationship with twin brothers Leo and Christian Steyner. The revelation of Clarissa’s true identity is quite clever, the type of plot twist reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Rendell proves to be totally in step with her characters’ obsession with "political correctness,” whether against it or for it. Even Wexford and Burden, who are supposed to be small-town police officers and are generally well-meaning, end up a bit befuddled by it all.
The long path is muddy from first step to last. The reader gets an uncertain sense of the blind alleys of the investigation while Rendell ties her tale all together with intricate plotting, though her style isn't as elegant as Peter Robinson‘s. Still, her prose manages to be simple and conversational yet sophisticated, as well as providing a vehicle for dull, tired old Wexford, who often clashes with the modern while proving to be gentlemanly to the last.
From the puzzle of Sarah’s past to the mystery of Duncan Crisp’s sudden disappearance, Rendell’s novel is filled with working-class villains, distorted loyalties, unhappy spouses, and long-buried secrets that transcend time. It appears, by the time the past last page is turned, that Wexford will be back, with affable Burden at his side.