Ruth Rendell (1930-2015) remembered

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It was just five months ago
that Ruth Rendell spoke on BBC Radio 4 to pay tribute to PD James, who died last November. Rendell’s recollections of a friend, crime-writing colleague and fellow parliamentarian (they both sat in the House of Lords) turned out to be her final media appearance. Now they have both gone, less than six months apart.

Like Elmore Leonard, Ruth Rendell (or Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE to use her full title) was an author whose powers never seemed to wane. The Girl Next Door (2014), her 51st Rendell novel, served up an exquisite portrayal of the rivalries and passions of a group of friends in their 70s. Typically, in Rendell’s story it was a pair of severed hands that shook up their post-retirement routine.

ruth-rendell-pd-jamesFor someone who only wrote crime, Rendell had an impressive range: procedurals featuring the doughty and politically enlightened Reg Wexford, standalone psychological thrillers, short stories and the 14 novels of suspense under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Like Patricia Highsmith, she had a fixation on criminal misfits, whose psychological state she explored with incisive prose. There are none of the moral certainties of PD James’s writing. But these rival ‘queens of crime’ (a title of which Rendell did not approve) were friendly despite their different approaches to the crime genre.

“We never talked about what we wrote at all, we would say things like I’m just finishing a book,” Ruth Rendell told Radio 4 last November. “We knew we didn’t write the same sort of books at all, in just the same way as we were politically far apart – she being a Conservative, and I being Labour – and we knew that if we talked we might disagree violently, and I think we wanted to avoid that.”

wexford-tvRendell marked 50 years of publishing crime with the reissue of her debut, From Doon With Death, in May 2014. It still stands up well today, though she realised that Wexford needed to be a more likeable character. Readers stuck with him thanks to the detective’s unusually happy marriage (a rarity in crime), the well-drawn relationship with his deputy, Mike Burden, and the politically aware plots set in the Sussex market town of Kingsmarkham. They were perfect for TV, but there was nothing cosy about Rendell’s character-driven writing.

live-fleshIn the standalone novels, she variously enters the minds of a stalker (Going Wrong), a rapist (Live Flesh, filmed by Pedro Almodóvar) and outsiders obsessed with the London Underground (King Solomon’s Carpet). While Rendell was unafraid to plunge into the psychological make-up of her characters, she was reluctant to reveal much about herself. Eighteen months ago, I was fortunate to see her discussing her work and, in her mid-80s, she was still a formidable presence. She had a reputation for being private and prickly, though her interviews were never dull.

We know that she was born Ruth Barbara Grasemann to a Swedish mother and English father, and her childhood in Essex was said to have been unhappy. She was equally unforthcoming about her private life, such as the decision to divorce her husband in 1975 and then remarry him two years later. Perhaps a serious biography will now be written. There is definitely a final novel to savour – Dark Corners is published in October.

Because she wrote more than 60 books and won many awards, it’s hard to single out a few. But here are five of Ruth Rendell’s best books.

from_doon_with_deathFrom Doon With Death (1964)
A woman’s body is discovered amid a herd of cows. In his first outing, Wexford first considers the husband, a true crime reader, as a possible suspect. But it’s poetry that seems to be at the heart of this case, as inscribed volumes belonging to the victim are discovered. It may be dated but it’s still a riveting procedural, which demonstrates that the young Rendell had the authorial splinter of ice in the heart that enabled her to portray tragedy with dispassionate prose.
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chimney-sweeper-150The Chimney-Sweeper’s Boy (1998)
The Barbara Vine books are an attempt to go deeper into character and to explore the pressures of society. In fact, they are often her most suspenseful works – even with the absence of murder. Of course, A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) and A Fatal Inversion (1987) are key Vine novels. But I’ve gone for this strange and unsettling book about a fictional best-selling author, a duplicitous and forbidding man whose secrets are revealed when his daughter embarks on an ill-advised biography after his sudden death.
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roadrageRoad Rage (1997)
Environmentalism is on the agenda in the 17th book in the Wexford series, and it is as strong as any of them. The detective is put in an awkward position when his wife joins the protest movement against the by-pass planned in Kingsmarkham. Then she disappears, along with several other characters. Road Rage features a carefully controlled plot with building tension, and it captures the mood of the 90s environmental movement. You will sympathise with a cop in the midst of a political protest.
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judgement-stone-150A Judgement in Stone (1977)
Rendell named this as one of her favourite novels, and it has become famous for its arresting opening sentence: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” In a story that focuses on class divisions, Rendell shows how the illiteracy of Eunice, a housekeeper, has made her ill-suited to normal society – with terrible consequences. It was made into the 1995 film, La Ceremonie. Rendell has stated that the French make the best adaptations of her books.
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rendell-stories-150Collected Stories 2 (2008)
It weighs in at 600 pages but don’t be surprised if you tear through these tales in a couple of days. While she’s recognised for her novels, Rendell was also a master of the short story. Several collections have been squeezed into two omnibus editions. This one includes the 2000 collection Piranha to Scurfy, a title that refers to a volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Rendell’s macabre imagination is perhaps most evident in her short stories.
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Read our feature on An Evening with Ruth Rendell here. In 2013, we also featured some of the cover art for her novels here.

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