When Rendell writes crime-from-the-criminal-point-of-view, she is gripping and creepy. When she writes straightforward detection starring homely, countryish Inspector Wexford, she is even better--with the Wexfords' good-humored warmth the perfect balance to Rendell's chilling dissection of crime. While women's lib simmers at the Wexford home--their daughter has left her husband--Inspector W. investigates the murder of a chic, unattractive middle-aged woman who was stabbed when she returned to her home village to visit her dying father. Strangely, Wexford can find no trace of the woman's life in London, where she has supposedly lived for 20 years. His only clue: a posh wallet in her handbag. Wexford's frustrating sleuthing in the London suburbs is absolutely enthralling, the false leads as fascinating as the eventual solution--which may be just a shade too bizarre (or a shade too reminiscent of a Tey classic) for some tastes. But only P. D. James can rival Rendell for total, no-seams-showing command of the classic genre, and true mystery fans, unlike literary critics, would probably give Rendell extra points for the un-literary economy and ease of her irresistible, nonstop prose.