Unlike many fictional detectives, who are often eccentric loners, Reginald Wexford is a family man: happily married, with an adoring wife and two grown daughters. In A Sleeping Life, one of his daughters is unhappy in her marriage, and his attempt to understand her situation makes him wonder about his own.
Set in 1978, A Sleeping Life brings the reader into a time when women were questioning much about their lives. Like Parker’s Finding Rachel Wallace (reviewed here), it gives us a glimpse of the feminist movement of the time. Rendell was called “the biggest anti-feminist there is” by Ms. Magazine for her portrayal of a radical women’s group in An Unkindness of Ravens (1985), but here, she seems sympathetic to the plight of both Wexford’s daughter Sylvia and that of the murder victim, Rhoda Confrey.
Rhoda Confrey, a middle-aged, unattractive woman, is someone whom society might well have assigned the role of caregiver to her elderly father. But by suddenly coming into money, she escapes that fate and goes off to live her own life in London. What then leads to her death by stabbing in her hometown? And what exactly was her life like in London?
Wexford and his longtime friend and assistant, Michael Burden, go up several blind alleys in their attempt to solve the mystery of Rhoda’s life and death. Rendell provides many clues, cleverly distracting the reader from their significance. A finalist for the Edgar Award (at a time when very few women were nominated for Edgars), A Sleeping Life is one of my favorites of Baroness Rendell’s Wexford books.