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This reading group guide for The Monster in the Boxby Ruth Rendellincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The latest addition to Ruth Rendell’s classic and beguiling Inspector Wexford series takes Inspector Wexford back to his days as a young policeman, and to the man he has long suspected of murder —serial murder.
Outside the house where Wexford investigated his first murder case, Wexford notices a short, muscular man who gives him an unnerving stare. Without any solid evidence, Wexford begins to suspect that this man —Eric Targo, he learns —is the killer. Over the years there are more unsolved, apparently motiveless murders in the town of Kingsmarkham, and Wexford continues to quietly suspect that the increasingly prosperous Targo is behind them.
Now, half a lifetime later, Wexford spots Targo back in Kingsmarkham after a long absence. Wexford tells his longtime partner Mike Burden about his suspicions, but Burden dismisses them as fantasy. Meanwhile, Burden’s wife Jenny has suspicions of her own. She believes that the Rahmans, a highly respectable immigrant family from Pakistan, may be forcing their daughter Tamima into an arranged marriage —or worse.
1. The past is very much alive in this novel. Wexford spends a great deal thinking about prior experiences, most notably his suspicions of Eric Targo. How does the past shed light on the present? Why do you think a large portion of this mystery is told in flashback? Could many of the murders Wexford thinks about have been solved with modern technology?
2. Inspector Wexford is a well-read detective; in fact he loses his fiancée due to his enjoyment of higher culture. How does his cultural eye enhance the narrative? Have you read any of the books or listened to the music Wexford references?
3. What were your first impressions of Eric Targo? How does the narrative portray him? Is there anything redeemable about this character?
4. Did you find yourself believing Inspector Wexford’s continued suspicions of Targo, or did you think that Wexford was just an old detective holding on to distant mistrusts? Did the former naevus on Targo’s neck accentuate his villainy?
5. How would you compare Eric Targo to his escaped lion? Why do you think Targo kept a lion in the first place?
6. Describe the Rahman family. Were there any odd dynamics you noticed from the very beginning? Did you suspect any of them?
7. Key, charged phrases in the book are “inverted racism” (136), “benevolent racism” (207), and “selective morality” (274). How would you define these terms? How do these concepts affect the characters within the novel? Do they help or hinder the detectives?
8. What does it mean to keep “monsters in the box”? Do you think that Inspector Wexford is someone who is able to successfully keep his monsters in the box?
9. How does the story of the woman in the red dress connect to the main narrative? If Wexford is thinking about her during his new investigation, is she another monster that has escaped the box?
10. Why do you think that Inspector Wexford refuses to hear Ahmed’s confession at the end of this novel? Do you think that this action will truly keep another monster in the box?
11. Were you surprised to learn what actually happened to the Rahmans’ daughter?
12. If you’ve read any of the other Inspector Wexford titles, how does The Monster in the Box compare? Were there any familiar quirks of Wexford or his partner? Did you learn anything new about Wexford’s personality or married life, especially since his début in From Doon with Death?
13. The author has stated that this is the final Inspector Wexford mystery she will write. Do you think that Wexford has ended on a good case? Do you think that returning to the past to write about the present, tying it together, is a good way to conclude a mystery series?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Talk about the differences between the past and present in your life. If you’ve lived in the same town, discuss how street layouts have changed, how attitudes have been modified, what immigration and identity means in your town. Think about people who you’ve briefly encountered—someone you had just one conversation with or took one glance at—and talk about why you think this person has stayed with you your whole life.
2. Look up the British education system that involves the GCSEs and A-levels. Talk about how this compares to the American education system. What are the benefits and problems of either? Do you think one prepares students better for the world outside of schooling?
3. Try to come up with your own mystery plot, one that Rendell might be interested in: a whydunit over a whodunit. Talk about how psychological mysteries are different from thriller mysteries. Which do you find more appealing? Are there any other masters you’ve read in this genre?
Ruth Rendell (1930–2015) won three Edgar Awards, the highest accolade from Mystery Writers of America, as well as four Gold Daggers and a Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to the genre from England’s prestigious Crime Writers’ Association. Her remarkable career spanned a half century, with more than sixty books published. A member of the House of Lords, she was one of the great literary figures of our time.