TV on DVD: The Ruth Rendell Mysteries -- Set 4: Simisola (1995) & Road Rage (1998)

Now Available On Acorn DVD

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"I would think that the old-fashioned detective story which is so much a matter of clues and puzzles, is certainly on the way out, if not already gone. Crime novels now are much more novels of character, and novels which look at the world we live in."
-- Ruth Rendell
(As Quoted on Her Website from an Interview in The Irish Times, 1996)

Although she said those words in 1996, working within the same character-driven or psychological mysteries in the vein of writers like Patricia Highsmith (whom is cited as a major inspiration in this 2-Disc Acorn DVD set) has been something towards which author Ruth Rendell has been striving for nearly her entire career as a novelist.

In the fascinating documentary "Super Sleuths" which is included on the first disc or Volume 1 of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries: Set 4, interviews are included with not only the cast and crew of the successful series of films based on her bestselling series about Inspector Wexford (brought to life on ITV for its 1987-2000 run by George Baker) but also scholars who shed some light on the writer's intriguing ability to weave in psychology and social issues throughout her narratives.

Simply put, Rendell's work is classified as being "less whodunnits" and instead more "whydunnits," as an interviewee notes. Although Rendell is said to have had a great deal of respect for the classic locked door mystery novels penned by Agatha Christie (the great puzzle maker whose works were sometimes so entangled by plot twists that the characters were left by the wayside) and indeed she sets up the Inspector Wexford works with the old paradigm of "a copper and his sidekick," you only have to watch a few scenes of either one of this set's two films--- Simisola or Road Rage-- to realize that you're dealing with an entirely different style of writing.

She seasons her literary mysteries about the classic, upstanding, easy-going and gentlemanly Inspector Wexford and his more "uptight" or "overly correct" colleague DI Mike Burden with social issues including Simisola's emphasis on biases, challenges, familial expectations, and socioeconomic frustrations involving class and class. And in the far more complicated and horrifying Road Rage, the narrative involves a dead tourist, enviornmental activists who clash with the police, murder, and countless subplots. Therefore, it's no wonder that a Rendell insider argues that the best way to study different periods of time is by reading crime novels.

In the case of Labour Party activist Rendell who is so prolific that she writes three different styles of works from the Wexford novels to her own more psychologically based pieces and under the pen-name Barbara Vine which are even darker novels in order to keep challenging herself-- her views of her surroundings and the psychology of her characters seem remain just as much if not more important than the mystery itself.

As scholars note, every Wexford book has been different as Rendell puts her main character through an extraordinary trial in every different case and from book to book, he evolves as well since the crimes he sees begin to naturally have an effect on him which, it is revealed was a literary "sea change" that Swedish authors were initially famous for in moving away from stodgy police procedurals to focusing more on the psychology of all involved.

Both films in this set span multiple episodes and build to such a tense conclusion by the end of each hour that it's definitely beneficial to have the opportunity to not wait for the next weekly installment but instead absorb them a bit faster and although both at their core seem to deal with a father who's lost his daughter, it's amazing how different the works are.

In Simisola, Wexford takes a personal interest to help his Nigerian-born doctor locate his daughter who went missing on her twenty-first birthday while en route to meet friends. Realizing that the young woman had to deal with the enormous expectations of parents who looked down on her Performing Arts degree since they proudly acknowledge that black Africans have the highest education in the area-- Wexford's search takes a disheartening turn when two bodies show up and he's confronted by the young woman's mother for perhaps a prejudice he may have kept hidden.

As Wexford must contend with some of his own familial dysfunction throughout the case-- this emotionally draining mystery changes up the old "young woman missing" classic premise by layering it with some far more intriguing layers as he encounters individuals and other "crimes" of different levels (from indifference to prejudice etc.) he's unable to really resolve while he goes about trying to reach a final conclusion for his doctor.

Initially, Road Rage seems to have a slightly similar set-up as a father ventures from Germany to locate his missing daughter and when her body is discovered amidst an agressive campaign by enviornmental activists and governmental construction workers. However, in this one Wexford and Burden find themselves pulled in endless directions as red herrings, false leads, shady characters, and new information abounds that culminates into a terrifying situation when a group of citizens are kidnapped including Wexford's dear wife.

While both films are quite fascinating and not quite the quirky village mystery spirit to be found in Midsomer Murders nor the dark procedural emphasized efforts of some of the UK's other popular crime and punishment styled dramas-- in this set, it's Road Rage that stands out for its sheer power and ease with which it commands your attention, even though this particular "whodunnit" was a bit easier to solve than the deeply surprising tale of Simisola.

Released in a slim-packaged set from Acorn Media in its original Full Screen format and stereo surround-- it's sure to make even newbies such as this reviewer long to explore the other adaptations of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. The works in which she's quoted in the documentary as noting are ones in which she allows freedom for the writers to play with any of her plots just so long as the filmmakers didn't mess with her psychologically fascinating characters. And based on these two films in the series, I'd say that was great advice indeed since it's the characters and not the cases that stay in our heads long after the credits roll.