Ruth Rendell (1930 – 2015)
The incredibly prolific and acclaimed novelist Ruth Rendell died on 2nd May. One of her final public appearances before succumbing to ill health was to attend the funeral of her good friend, P. D. James, who passed away in November 2014. The two writers dominated the British crime novel since the 1960s in a manner […]
The incredibly prolific and acclaimed novelist Ruth Rendell died on 2nd May. One of her final public appearances before succumbing to ill health was to attend the funeral of her good friend, P. D. James, who passed away in November 2014. The two writers dominated the British crime novel since the 1960s in a manner reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in the period before them. They both moved the crime novel further into depths of psychological complexity and intricate social detail. Unusually both writers also were members of the House of Lords, Rendell as a representative for Labour and James as a Conservative peer. Their political differences did not affect a friendship that began at a literary festival in the early 1970s.
After a short journalistic career Ruth Rendell published her first novel, From Doon with Death in 1964. The book was in the tradition of the police procedural crime novel, but with a slightly darker tone. It introduced Inspector Reginald Wexford and his dour sidekick, Mike Burden. The books are set in the fictional market town of Kingsmarkham, located in her native Suffolk. After a holiday in Ireland visiting Wexford Rendell had decided to call her detective after the county. Rendell stated in several interviews that she and Inspector Wexford shared many personality traits and beliefs.
Wexford is not an eccentric or loner like so many other fictional sleuths. He is solid and dependable as well as quick-witted; he has a wife and children, and is often preoccupied with domestic concerns. After the first Wexford novel, twenty-three more (and one short story collection) followed between 1964 and 2013. A lot of social change in England during this period was reflected in the books. Some of the later novels highlighted militant feminism, racism, vigilantism, religious fundamentalism and environmental activism. The final two Wexford novels featured the character after his retirement.
Rendell also began writing crime novels that didn’t feature Wexford, starting with To Fear a Painted Devil (1965) These books were more psychological thrillers of inquiry, and offered a less settled view of the world. Many of the characters in these novels are unhinged or dangerously frustrated with their place in society, and the reader is invited into their thinking in a way that isn’t usually possible with the conventional detective mystery.
This literary strand reached its high point in the 1970s with three of her best novels: A Demon in My View (1976), A Judgement in Stone (1977), and Make Death Love Me (1979). A Judgement of Stone reveals the identity of the murderer in its great opening line, and reveals the reason, but in an oblique way which compels the reader to explore further. Make Death Love Me shows a numbered of dissatisfied lives converging and unravelling after a small-town bank robbery.
In 1986 Rendell adapted a pseudonym, Barbara Vine. Under this name, and in a very productive period where Rendell books were also published, she produced a number of her most acclaimed and outstanding works – A Dark Adapted Eye (1986), A Fatal Inversion (1987), The House of Stairs (1988), and Asta’s Book (1993). These novels have a lot in common with her darker psychological crime novels, but they also focus further on family intrigues and how crimes and secrets in the past overshadow people’s destinies.
Unlike most crime writers Rendell was a prolific short story writer as well, publishing several volumes. Notable stories are ‘The Fallen Curtain’, ‘The Fever Tree’, ‘Thornapple’, and ‘The New Girlfriend’. Means of Evil (1979) was a collection of five stories featuring Inspector Wexford. From 2011 she sponsored a short story competition with Interact, a charity that supports stroke recovery. A novella, The Thief, was released in 2006 as part of a World Book Day campaign to encourage literacy. When Suffolk County Council proposed to close a large number of public libraries in 2011, she was involved in the successful protest against the move.
A final Rendell novel, Dark Corners is scheduled for publication in October. The majority of Rendell/Vine books are available in Fingal Libraries through the online catalogue, or can be ordered.