FROM DOON WITH DEATH (1964) by Ruth Rendell


This short novel (my edition runs to 182 pages) marked the debut of Chief Inspector Reg Wexford and Inspector Mike Burden, the two top cops of Kingsmarkham, a sleepy Sussex market town with more than its fair share of murderous episodes. Pious, poor and conventional Margaret Parsons goes missing and two days later her strangled body is found semi-hidden on farmland near a wood. Who would want to hurt someone so seemingly ineffectual? Could it be her milquetoast husband, or some one from her past?

I submit this review for Bev’s Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog, dedicated today to Ruth Rendell.

“Normal ordinary wives as conventional as Mrs Parsons, wives who always have a small meal ready for their husbands on the dot of six, don’t suddenly go off without leaving a note.”

This confident debut is in many ways a very conventional whodunit – a woman goes missing and is found strangled. Her husband Ron is the natural suspect, as is Drury, an old boyfriend from the village, but these leads, after a few red herrings, peter out. Then in the attic of the victim’s home, the Inspector finds several books with loving messages from Doon, who seems to have known the victim in her youth and then re-entered her life recently and rather disagreeably.

“D’you know, I can hardly believe it. I should have said she was the last girl to get herself murdered.”


The police realise that ‘Doon’ was just a nickname and decide may very well have been an old lover who reconnected unsuccessfully with his old flame, leading to the strangling. Which of her old school friends can it be? The spoiled Helen Missal, who claims to have been near the murder spot but only the day after the crime, or the upper class solicitor Douglas Quadrant, who was with her at the time and is married to Fabia, another one of the victim’s school friends? And who dropped a match and an expensive lipstick (‘Arctic Sable’) near the body? The book follows this traditional path but to spring its surprise conclusion manages to introduce an exciting, and for its day, quite daring reversal, one that is crucial to the solution, so cannot be spoiled here (beware of the Wikipedia page incidentally, as it ruins this for all to see). Rendell’s distinctive voice – gloomy and somewhat misanthropic, is already very recognisable. For instance, here is her description of the home of the victim:

“The sun showed up the new dust and in its gentle light the house seemed no longer like the scene of a crime but just a shabby relic.”

My blogging buddy the Puzzle Doctor reviewed this one over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and was more or less of the same mind as myself. I think this still works as a whodunit with a decent twist too – the protagonists will be fleshed out more in later volumes (Wexford’s wife Dora doesn’t even appear) but the ingenuity, the incisive precision of the writing and the often pitiless characterisation is all present and correct.
I submit this review for Bev’s Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘country scene’ cover category:


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

This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, England, Friday's Forgotten Book, Inspector Wexford, Ruth Rendell and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to FROM DOON WITH DEATH (1964) by Ruth Rendell

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I agree with your use of the word confident. I think the series certainly evolved and got stronger as it went on, as most series do. But this was a solid opener for it. I must admit, I like Wexford and Burden and co., so I’m biased. But still, this one’s a good solid read.

  2. realthog says:

    A good and satisfying review, although I like the novel (which I reread not so long ago) quite a lot less than you do. I’m a Rendell/Vine fan for the most part, but I’ve never been totally convinced by her Wexford novels. The TV adaptations, though, with the excellent (and politically savvy) George Baker, are quite another matter.

    This short novel (my edition runs to 182 pages)

    Ha! That wasn’t a short novel back in the day when it was published, young whippersnapper.

    The Wikipedia page seems no longer to contain a spoiler. Or do you consider the merest hint that’s there to be a spoiler?

    (Incidentally, the function of Wikipedia is to be an encyclopedia, not a tantalizer. It’s actually a weakness — as acknowledged by the “stub” status of the entry — that it doesn’t give a fuller synopsis, including a revelation of the “twist.”)

    • All fair points John (as ever) – the trouble with Wikipedia entry is its very brevity which means it makes the point that we are not mentioning very prominent and because it is crucial to the motive and the solution I would consider it a major spoiler in the circumstances. I just might go in and re-edit it in fact … 🙂

  3. Colin says:

    You know, I’ve never read any Rendell or even seen any of the TV adaptations, at least no more than a quick look. The Wexford novels do intrigue me though and I have it in mind to try one at some stage.

    • I think the Wexford books from the 1970s like Shake Hands Forever stand up very well actually. Having said that, I did stop reading them in the 90s so I am a bit out of date …

      • Colin says:

        Would you say they’re something you can dip into mid-series then?

        • There are some domestic things that change (Burden loses his first wife for instance) but otherwise nothing that would affect your reading pleasure. The ones I remember best are pretty much those from the 1970s, such as:
          A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)
          No More Dying Then (1971)
          Murder Being Done Once (1972) (‘Murder Being Once Done’ in the US)
          Some Lie And Some Die (1973)
          Shake Hands Forever (1975)
          A Sleeping Life (1978)
          Put on By Cunning (1981)

  4. tracybham says:

    I reread this a few years back and was disappointed. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe too slow, maybe the characters were not as I remembered them because I had read more recent books. I have all of them to read or reread and I will work my way through them but not necessarily in order.

    • Well, it does feel like quite a small book with only a few characters and I suppose the big surprise is not such a big deal any more – I did enjoy re-reading it though.

      • tracybham says:

        The reason I have all of them to reread is that I sought them out at books stores. when I originally read them it was probably library copies… at one time I must have been a huge fan. So I will be continuing to read them…

        • Excellent – with me, when I first got into mystery fiction int he 80s, I was back home in Italy and read everything in translation, so part of the fun for me now is to go back and re-read in the original (well, in the case of English – everything else I still have to access in translation)

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I must have read this years ago (I went through a Wexford phase) but I can’t recall much about it. I think I found her books enjoyable but not necessarily substantial. Great review – especially for the use of “milquetoast”! 🙂

    • Thanks for that Karen – I do know what you mean (a bit) because although I think there are some very clever plots in her stories from the 70s, increasingly it looks like it is the ‘Barbara Vine’ books that are really going to be remembered.

  6. When I first read FROM DOON TO DEATH back in the Sixties I never realized how important Ruth Rendell would become!

  7. Bev Hankins says:

    I haven’t read this one since I discovered Rendell in high school, Sergio. Thanks for the reminder of how great I thought it was then. I also think it’s cool that you followed my Rendell with another.

    • I can only ever follow in your giant footsteps Bev 🙂 I went through a big Rendell #phase’ in the 80s but really should go back – apart from anything else, she was very prolific and there is a lot of hr work I need to catch up with too!

      • Bev Hankins says:

        The 80s was my big Rendell phase as well. Great minds! I will say that I tried rereading her A Judgement in Stone a year ago or so and found it difficult going. That was the first book I ever read of hers and it sold me on Rendell–so I can only think that I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind this time round.

        • I think STONE was my first Rendell purchase too actually (in hardback) – I’ve not re-read it though. I really want to go back and re-read the early Vine books though …

  8. SNAP! Back at you, not having read any other Rendell I had no comparison, other than to other Brit Inspectors, such as Wycliffe (to stay in the W section of the alphabet). I liked it well enough, though it was slow and I saw the “twist” coming some way off. Of course as you say, no big thing today, but still there is the answer to who “dunnit” regardless of the twist angle. I’ll try another, but after reading the comments on my review and yours here I’ll try one of the books a bit further along in the series, or perhaps even one of the Vines.

  9. I read it in the early 80s, and it was a surprising ending in a book of that kind. Having discovered Rendell I was delighted that she had written so much, and worked my way through them in a series of small cheap paperbacks with dull, dire covers. I think I gave up on her maybe 15 years later, as the books got longer and Wexford passed from amiably grumpy to absolutely horrible. Rendell was virtually unknown for a long time – many books before she reached her later iconic status.

    • Thansk Moiras – So, not just me that bailed with the later entries – ha! Am now curious to fill some fo the gaps in my reading and see if my feeling for them has changed at all …

  10. Matt Paust says:

    I like the surprise ending idea, Sergio, and the shortness (lol). I really should give her another chance. Maybe this is the one.

  11. Sergio, I think I saw this title at the Books by Weight exhibition I visited last week. They had two large cartons of Ruth Rendell paperbacks but I didn’t pick up any owing to the mini avalanche of unread books at home. I will have to put off my first date with the author.

  12. Kelly says:

    I like Rendell’s standalone novels far, far better than the Wexford series, but I still think the Wexford stuff is pretty solid.

  13. First Ruth Rendall I’ve ever read and its a stroke of luck to find it is the first of the series. I will now read the rest, esp if the series improves, this was excellent.

  14. Pingback: “From Doon with Death” by Ruth Rendell – Tangled Yarns

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