If you think the human race is basically kind-hearted, and that we are a perfectible species, then perhaps Ruth Rendell is not the author for you. This supreme practitioner of the crime novel has probably the most dyspeptic view of human nature since her American predecessor Patricia Highsmith. But for those of us who have a more cold-eyed view of life, Rendell’s books are singularly bracing confirmations of what we all secretly know: that many of us are capable of the most appalling actions given the right circumstances and the right motivation. That’s not to say that such books as The Monster in the Box (her new offering) are depressing experiences — quite the contrary. And the criminal here is one who (thankfully) very few of us could find ourselves identifying with.

The eponymous box here is a metaphorical one, used by Rendell’s long-term protagonist, the resourceful Inspector Wexford: the notion is to imagine a box in which you can file away the most unacceptable incidents from the past and shut them off. Wexford has used this method to deal with something that happened to him when he was a young copper. In an encounter with Eric Targo, Wexford discovered that he was dealing with a man whose love of animals was not reflected in his attitude to human beings — Targo was prepared to commit the most terrible domestic violence. Wexford’s feeling that he was dealing with a psychopathic monster were not echoed by his superiors, and he was obliged to file away the case. But the passing of the years puts him into contact with Targo again (who has by now acquired a menagerie of animals). Is Wexford correct in thinking he is dealing with a serial killer he should have brought to justice years ago?

Rendell fans enjoy themselves by arguing about which are her best novels — the long-running Wexford series or her dark stand-alone novels. The new book combines elements from both strands: Wexford is as strongly characterised as ever, but the darkness of the narrative plunges into the uncomfortable territory of her other non-series books. As ever, it is the individual detail that makes the book so compelling, even when Rendell is clearly doing a little point scoring of her own. She clearly loathes political correctness, and with the hyper-PC Hannah Goldsmith, Rendell misses not a single rapier thrust. Her fans need not hesitate.

BARRY FORSHAW

The Monster in the Box

By Ruth Rendell

(Hutchinson, £18.99)

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