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ON THE ROAD TO RUIN

The activists who seize hostages to halt construction of a highway bypass in the Sussex County town of Kingsmarkham in Ruth Rendell's tense "Road Rage" make two major errors.

Firstly, one of their kidnap victims is Dora Wexford, wife of Kingsmarkham's veteran Detective Inspector Reg Wexford, a tenacious cop who's appointed to head his own investigation.

The abductors' second mistake is to deliberately release Dora, after planting false clues on her, while forgetting her acumen and sharp sense of observation that come naturally to a police inspector's wife.

The action in "Road Rage" swirls around a demonstration against a new government highway that will, in the estimation of nearly all the citizens, irreparably destroy the unique beauty of the gentle countryside by driving "a scar" through it.

From all around Mid-Sussex, and from as far away as London, opponents and proponents begin massing in bucolic Kingsmarkham to loudly voice their opinions.

Hostility grows and violence erupts until, in a midnight foray, a group of bypass enemies, calling themselves "The Sacred Globe, Savior of the Earth," seizes five townsmen as hostages.

The masked kidnappers vow the hostages won't be released "until construction of the bypass is discontinued and not resumed."

The police, hitherto baffled by an utter lack of clues, are bolstered by the released Dora Wexford's acute deductions and shrewd insights into the hostage-takers. As a result, they're finally able to scotch the conspiracy.

There is a human toll, however. One hostage is murdered and a policeman -- who was Sacred Globe's "mole" within the department -- is slain as Wexford's officers round up the kidnappers.

Rendell has a wonderful ear and eye for the eccentricities of the English. Her descriptions of a subculture of tree-dwellers -- off-the-wall citizens who build houses in countryside trees near the controversial bypass site -- are particularly enjoyable.

Along with P. D. James, Rendell, who is 65, continues to bestride the English literary mystery, with nary a challenger in sight.

ROAD RAGE
By Ruth Rendell
Crown
352 pages, $25

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