Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford series is now about 20 books long. I first started reading these books as a teenager and enjoy them as much now as I did then. Over the series, we have followed the development of Wexford and Burden's own family lives: their marriages, their children and (in the case of Wexford), grandchildren. Sometimes these have involved drama, but most often, and most successfully, they simply involve the daily interactions between people, with all their small frustrations and pleasures. Wexford and Burden themselves, longstanding partners professionally, have become almost like an old married couple themselves, understanding each other well enough to know when to exercise tolerance or patience.
As well as the family developments, Rendell covers the change in police procedures over the years (the series begain in 1964): technological, political, social. New, young staff are hired who have the attitudes of their own generation, bringing challenges for Wexford and the old hands.
Finally, Rendell is interested in addressing changes in society's values. In this well-established series, and particularly through Wexford, who is both old (experienced) and open-minded (this is what makes him a good, intuitive policeman), attitudes to race, gender, religion, the developing world, consumerism, religion, morals and so on are bought into focus. Rendell has a strong liberal social conscience: Wexford, being both aware of his increasing age and the possibility of becoming more "out of touch", as well as having a sensitive and emotional personality, seems to represent the authorial persona.
I hope I haven't made this book sound heavy-going. It isn't. All this context is interwound into a readable, digestible plot. Rendell likes to explore one particular situation in each of these novels; in this case, "End in Tears" focuses on young children, parenthood, surrogacy, and the powerful feelings thus engendered — using new and established characters to explore different angles. (This book, published in 2005, is certainly topical, bearing in mind the current media-induced hysteria over Madonna's adoption of a Somalian baby earlier this year, 2006.)
Of course, the book is a detective novel, and works well as such. The plotting is tight and many balls are kept in the air without one falling down that I noticed, even though the presence of twins is usually a bad sign in crime fiction. But in the end, the denouement is almost irrelevant (just as well, as I thought it stretched believability a bit too much). But as a whole, the book simply works — the author is comfortable with the world she has created, the characters live outside the page, reading is effortless.
I will send a free, unread copy of this book to the first person who asks for it in the comments — owing to advancing senility I inadvertently bought two copies. If you haven't read a Wexford novel before, I'd recommend starting the series from the beginning (they are all in print). If you have read a Wexford before and like them, you will enjoy this one too.
Here is a bibliography for Ruth Rendell, which includes the Wexford series in reading order.