SHAKE HANDS FOREVER (1975) by Ruth Rendell


Reg Wexford and Mike Burden, the two top cops of Kingsmarkham, have a very cunningly conceived plan to unravel in their ninth case, which has always been one of my favourites. Angela Hathall is found strangled in the home she shares with her beloved husband Robert, who discovers the body on his return from collecting his (absolutely awful) mother from London for a visit. Actually, its his mother who discovers the body, and in a way she is quite pleased as she much preferred his first wife …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

She paused and smiled. “People make such a mess of their lives, don’t they?”

After fifteen years of marriage Robert left his wife after meeting Angela, leading to a bitter feud including his teenage daughter and his mother. Ultimately the divorce settlement was made, leaving Robert and Angela virtually penniless, so they moved to their current little house, owned by her distant cousin. The two had no friends and no social life, apparently disdainful of others and happiest in their own company. And now she has been found dead. There is virtually no physical evidence to speak of – the house had been thoroughly and meticulously cleaned for the arrival of Hathall’s exacting mother (a doomed attempt at a rapprochement) so there are practically no fingerprints, no evidence of a break-in and because the house is so isolated, there are no witnesses. The one piece of evidence is the hand print of a woman found inside the bath – it has an L-shaped scar on the forefinger and when Wexford asks Hathall about it, he is sure the man is lying when he says he doesn’t know who it could belong to. Reg becomes convinced Hathall is guilty of the murder, despite the fact that he has an unbreakable alibi (he was in London at work all day before meeting his mother at the strain station) and no apparent motive as everyone said he loved Angela.

“I’ve never come across a family so nourished on hatred”


Having just re-read The Pledge (which I reviewed just the other day), I was surprised by the similarities of these two novels. In both at the halfway mark the detective is told the investigation is closed but decides to go it alone having become obsessed with solving the murder. In Wexford’s case it takes him 15 months to find the solution, going so far as to hire a man to watch Hathall after he moves back to London. He even involves his nephew Howard, also in the police, to carry on the investigation unofficially. But is Reg right, or is he letting the fact that he, like everybody else, has taken an instant dislike to Hathall, mar his judgement? And how is the alluring Nancy Lake, who briefly met Angela that day, involved? Will Reg succumb to her charms? What is she hiding ..? And what about that book on Gaelic?

I recommended this one to my blogging buddy the Puzzle Doctor but, as you can see from his review at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, he was very far from impressed. Bev’s impressions of it over at My Reader’s Block however chimed in much more with my own. I still think the central idea a very clever one and liked the way that Rendell handled Reg’s obsession and the apparently pointless manhunt.

Following on from the success of his Adam Dalgliesh TV serials, producer John Goldsmith decided to give the Wexford books the same treatment, starting with Wolf to the Slaughter. The results were a bit mixed (the music was execrable, later replaced by a much more memorable Brian Bennett score) but he definitely got the casting right with the late George Baker perfect as Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft perhaps even better as his often hard-to-like sidekick, Burden; Louie Ramsay co-starred as the Inspector’s wife, Dora (she and Baker later married in real life) while from Some Lie and Some Die onwards, Diane Keen joined the cast as Jenny, Burden’s second wife. The 1988 TV adaptation of Shake Hands Forever is in three one-hour episodes and quite remarkably faithful, following the original structure precisely and keeping pretty much all the characters, situation and dialogue with a minimum of alteration or embellishment. Shot on video tape but out of the studio and on location, it privileges dialogue at all times and so this can make it a bit slow-moving (and a bit pointless if you’ve actually read the book) but along with the stars the supporting cast is truly first-rate, with Tom Wilkinson incredibly good as the disagreeable Hathall.
The Wexford TV series


  1. Wolf to the Slaughter (1987) – 4 parter
  2. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1988) – 3 parter
  3. Shake Hands Forever (1988) – 3 parter
  4. No Crying He Makes (1988) – TV Movie
  5. No More Dying Then (1989) – 3 parter
  6. A Sleeping Life (1989) – 3 parter
  7. The Veiled One (1989) – TV Movie
  8. Some Lie and Some Die (1990) – 3 parter
  9. The Best Man to Die (1990) – 3 parter
  10. An Unkindness of Ravens (1990) – 2 parter
  11. Put on by Cunning (1990) – TV Movie
  12. A New Lease of Death (1991) – 3 parter
  13. Murder Being Once Done (1991) – 3 parter
  14. From Doon with Death (1991) – 2 parter
  15. Means of Evil (1991) – 2 parter
  16. Achilles’ Heel (1991) – TV Movie
  17. The Speaker of Mandarin (1992) – 3 parter
  18. The Mouse in the Corner (1992) – 2 parter
  19. An Unwanted Woman (1992) – 2 parter
  20. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992) – 4 parter
  21. Simisola (1996) – 3 parter
  22. Road Rage (1998) – 2 parter
  23. Harm Done (2000) – TV Movie

DVD Availability: Although released in the good old days of VHS, this has not, to my knowledge, yet been released on DVD in the UK though you can get it in Germany.

Shake Hands Forever (1988)
Director: Don Leaver
Producer: Neil Zeiger
Screenplay: Clive Exton
Art Direction: Christine Ruscoe
Music: Brian Bennett
Cast: George Baker, Christopher Ravenscroft, Louie Ramsay, Tom Wilkinson, Margery Mason, Michael Byrne, Bernard Holley, June Ritchie, Geoffrey Beevers
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘detective team’ category:


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, England, Inspector Wexford, Ruth Rendell and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

50 Responses to SHAKE HANDS FOREVER (1975) by Ruth Rendell

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – This is a nice little puzzle, isn’t it? I think the puzzle itself is one of the better aspects of this novel, to be frank. I admit I’ve not seen the TV adaptation, but it’s good to hear that it stays close to the book.

  2. realthog says:

    I remember enjoying this one quite a lot . . . but virtually nothing else about it: unsurprising, since it must be at least 30 years since I read it. Your excellent account has resolved me to give it a re-read: many thanks.

    Now, is it lurking somewhere on the shelves, or . . .?

  3. Whenever I read a review like this one I again wish I liked Rendell/Wexford more than I do. Apart from Road Rage (which I am inordinately fond of) they’re not really my thing but you’ve made me want them to be.

    • Thanks very much Bernadette – I dare say one appreciated Rendell more than one likes 🙂 But having said that, I always really liked the ingenious central conceit here.

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    Thanks for the mention, Sergio! I was a huge Rendell fan back in my twenties. When I read her now it’s more hit and miss–fortunately this one was a hit for me. I tried to re-read A Judgement in Stone last year and just couldn’t manage it.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    ” I was surprised by the similarities of these two novels.”
    However, the ending is so dissimilar. One leads to success and the other to failure and frustration.

    • Definitely Santosh – Durrenmatt was deliberately eschewing the conventional solution (though he did provide one) but as it was a coincidence that I re-read them both it struck how, until that point, as you say, they really do share a lot of similarities.

  6. Well, I said my piece over in my review, but the cast of the TV version makes me vaguely inclined to watch it. Vaguely…

  7. tracybham says:

    I bought (over several years) all the Wexford’s to re-read them (except for a few around the 90’s that I never read). This one definitely seems worth a re-read. I don’t remember much about any of them except I enjoyed them. Interesting about the TV series. I did not even know it existed until recently.

    • Not all the TV adaptations were as slavishly faithful as this one (especially those based on the short stories, predictably) – actually, George Baker (Wexford) even wrote some of the scripts later on – worth a look Tracy if you are ever inclined to!

  8. Colin says:

    Sounds like it might be of interest. I never got into Rendell – so many books I was never sure where to start – the psychological stuff didn’t seem like my cup of tea, and I remember the Wexford stories on TV didn’t grab me, although I only ever watched snippets.

  9. realthog says:

    I watched many (probably most and possibly all) of the TV adaptations, and in general enjoyed them hugely. I rewatched one recently (found on YouTube, as I recall) and, yes, it had dated a bit and seemed somewhat clunky, but it was still well worth the time it took.

    George Baker makes a splendid Wexford — a definitive one, I’d say.

    • I agree completely John – it’s a shame that the earlier ones, shot on tape like the initial Adam Dalgliesh serials, have not been deemed worthy of commercial DVD release. I am a huge fan of the somewhat theatrical style, but many feels it is too old fashioned in lacking in dynamism – shame.

  10. I had a chance to talk with Ruth Rendell at a BOUCHERCON in Philadelphia years ago. Rendell was very gracious. I told her I loved her books especially her darker “Barbara Vine” novels. When I asked Rendell who her favorite writer was, she answered, “Henry James.”

  11. Sarah says:

    Ah, I really remember this book. It’s the bread and butter of my teenage reading. And I can really remember the plot. I must go back and read some old Ruth Rendell. I’ve forgotten how wonderful she was.

  12. I enjoyed both the book and the TV version, but my favourite Wexfords are the under-estimated Put on by Cunning (very clever solution) and A Sleeping Life. On the whole, I prefer her non-Wexfords, written up to the end of the Nineties under her own name and as Barbara Vine, which I think include some of the best crime novels ever published.

    • realthog says:

      On the whole, I prefer her non-Wexfords . . . under her own name and as Barbara Vine, which I think include some of the best crime novels ever published.

      I’d go along with that. Her The Chimney-Sweeper’s Boy (1998, as Vine) isn’t even recognizably a crime novel yet it’s still magnificent. In fact, now that you’ve mentioned it, her The Birthday Present (2008, as Vine) has just made the migration from the bookcase to the nightstand . . .

    • Thanks Martin – I would definitely agree with regard to the Wexfords – and I suspect you are right, it’s the non-series and especially the Vine books she’ll be best remembered for.

  13. I can remember reading this back in the day, and ultimately being puzzled by one thing: Hathall’s reaction to the finding of the handprint. I couldn’t make sense of it, even after finishing the book. I can’t remember much else about the plot, so I don’t know if that was me being slow or not! I’m going to have to get it down again and work out why that one moment in the book made such an impression on me….

    • Well, you’ve got me a bit puzzled Moira! Surely, it’s just that the hand print was left by mistake as it belongs to the wrong woman, right?

      • Yes, but his reaction seems completely OTT – they surely must have considered this possibility? And does it actually make that much difference? And if you are going to have an L-shaped scar isn’t it going to have to mean a bit more than that? When I first read it, I assumed that this discovery must mean that Hathall had not realized until that moment who had done the murder, and suddenly was horrified. And if I had been writing it I would have made that the case 😉

  14. Todd Mason says:

    Man, atop all else, one of my last tasks at my now former job was straightening out a US import package of Rendell adaptations…

  15. Sergio, hopefully, Ruth Rendell will be one of the major female authors for me to read this year. Like Colin, I never got into her books.

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  17. Pingback: Shake Hands for Ever (Ruth Rendell) – The Grandest Game in the World

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