Ruth Rendell – or Baroness Rendell of Babergh to use her full title following her Life Peerage in 1997 – is approaching the 50th anniversary of the publication of her debut novel. She’s published a total of 50 novels as Ruth Rendell as well as several short story collections and a further 14 books under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Numerous authors cite her as an influence, and refer to her books as classics. She received an outstanding contribution award at the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July.
Wexford still on the case
Appearing at the Rose Theatre in Kingston last night (8 September) the author – described as ‘probably the greatest living crime writer in the world’ by Ian Rankin – was interviewed by Sunday Times literary critic Peter Kemp. He summed up her books as ‘a body of work that contains a lot of bodies.’ From Doon with Death, published in 1964, featured a young detective called Reg Wexford. Remarkably, Rendell is still writing about Wexford – her latest, No Man’s Nightingale, came out last month – though he’s now retired and assisting on cases.
Now aged 83 and planning at least one more Wexford novel, Rendell offered a glimpse into her writing life and an insight into her 50-year career, which includes the Wexford procedurals, psychological crime novels and her Barbara Vine books, which are suspenseful but don’t always feature a murder.
Following a brief career in journalism in Essex, she began writing unpublished short stories in the 1950s and admitted they were pretty bad, though it forced her to improve her writing. Rendell soon discovered that suspense was her strong point.
From Doon with Death was a success but Rendell realised that Wexford was too grumpy, so she made him a kinder, more liberal detective. “I began to see that he might become quite a popular character,” she explained. “Anger management courses were not thought of in 1965 but I put him through one myself. I thought I was stuck with him and I wanted to like him.”
Readers write expressing their adoration for Wexford though she denies any amorous feelings. “He should be in love with me for making him a famous policeman,” said Rendell.
Classic detective, modern issues
In the 1990s, Rendell refreshed her approach to Wexford by making the books more political and addressing issues such as racism (Simisola – 1994), the environment (Road Rage – 1997) and domestic violence (Harm Done – 1999). No Man’s Nightingale begins with a murder in a vicarage, though Rendell insisted she was not paying homage to Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel The Murder at the Vicarage.
“The whole vicarage set-up has changed so much anyway,” she added. “It was just another setting for Wexford and that has been something of a problem for me – they nearly all take place in Kingsmarkham and they have to change a bit.”
The detective has travelled: London for previous novel The Vault (2011) and China for The Speaker of Mandarin (1983).
As well as the social issues that appear in her novels, the Wexford books are also a chance to meet up with a familiar cast of characters and for Rendell to portray the life of a contented, retired detective rather than the dissolute, divorced ageing cop who often crops up in crime fiction.
“I didn’t want Wexford to be one of those detectives who has a marriage that goes to pieces and drinks too much and has to go and live in one room somewhere,” she told the audience. “I wanted him to have a good, solid marriage – his daughters can do the mess.”
“I don’t think it has affected me a bit…”
Asked about her next novel featuring Wexford (the 25th in the series), Rendell said: “I will probably write one more but not yet. It’s on a theme that’s been done many times before and if I do it I will have to give it some kind of different slant or twist.”
She is currently writing a standalone novel, set to appear in 2014. Rendell has always written such psychological novels, including A Judgement in Stone from 1977 with its famous opening line, “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
Rendell insisted she is not troubled by entering the minds of disturbed characters. “It is like going over a threshold,” she said. “I don’t think it has affected me a bit.”
Although some of her characters may be psychopaths, she also works hard to make them sympathetic, such as Finn in The Lake of Darkness (1980) – he is disturbed but still cares for his ailing mother. “If you make a character love someone they become lovable,” she explained.
Ruth Rendell first used the Barbara Vine pseudonym in 1986 for A Dark-Adapted Eye because she realised the WWII-set story was so different from her other novels. The author is scrupulous about accuracy, describing how she counted the spikes around the railings of Regent’s Park in London. She later used them to impale her victims in 1996 novel The Keys to the Street, which is being adapted for the cinema from a script by Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan.
Rendell admitted that her publisher sometimes hates her book titles, such as her short story collection Piranha to Scurfy from 2000. Can you guess where that title came from? It was named after a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Interviewers have described Rendell as a bit frosty and she was certainly serious-minded during this event, though there were also flashes of sharp wit – much like in her books. “I’ve learned a lot,” she said of her time in the House of Lords, which she attends after writing in the mornings. “What else would I have done in the afternoon?”
No laughing matter
Asked if she was tempted to write a comedy thriller, she responded: “No, I don’t approve of comedy thrillers – I don’t think violent death is funny.”
Rendell stressed that the murders in her books, which usually happen off the page, are incidental and that she doesn’t plan her novels in advance or dwell on grisly or inventive methods of killing characters. “I never think about it,” she said. “It’s the sort of thing people used to think about – all those great ladies of crime fiction in the ‘30s.”
Rendell was nonplussed about her new crime rival JK Rowling, who tricked the literary world by using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. “I suppose she wanted to see if she could do it and if people would want to read it, but it hasn’t interested me very much. I like her Harry Potter books, I think she should perhaps have written more of them,” she said.
She hasn’t always liked the TV adaptations of her books, but she described the series of the Wexford stories as, “Not bad – the Wexfords were mostly well done.” She added: “The best films that have been made for the cinema or television of my books have been French. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Another one’s being made soon, so that’s rather good.”
Rendell named her own personal favourite novels as A Judgement in Stone (1977), Portobello (2008), The St Vita Society (2012) and 1987 novel Talking to Strange Men – “Which nobody liked but me,” she says.
Despite her productivity, she also owned up to taking weekends off. “I am a human being,” she said.
Look out for a review of No Man’s Nightingale this month. You can read more about the cover art on her paperbacks here.