It was with much sadness that I heard last week of the death of Ruth Rendell. I guess it wasn’t totally unexpected – she was, after all, 85 – but her death leaves a gap in crime writing that will be hard to fill.
Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930-2015) wrote three different kinds of crime fiction. There is her Inspector Wexford series of police procedurals, her stories which involve crime but don’t focus on its detection (Ruth Rendell Mark II), and her psychological crime stories written under the name Barbara Vine
Rendell is reticent about her personal history. Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers. Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man. She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’. After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times. She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950. They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later. They had one son. She wrote six books before she approached a publisher; when she did, her books were instantly successful. From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories. In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and from then on continued to produce books in all three categories. In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government. Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor (2002).
I remember reading From Doon with Death not long after it was published. I thought it was OK as a standard police procedure with some human interest around the Wexford’s and his off-sider Burdon’s families, but not brilliant. The Wikipedia entry on the book, however, says that ‘although the identity of the victim’s lover “Doon” would not be much of a surprise to the 21st century reader, at the time of its release it was considered ground-breaking and daring’. I’ve always thought that Rendell’s writing grew in stature as she developed the character of DCI Reg Wexford. In the early books, Wexford’s role was essentially just to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret. Later he grew into a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like,’ she says, ‘– I’ve done that more and more’.
Even more important, though, was the development of his social conscience – the lens through Rendell’s own concerns for social, political and moral issues were reflected. Three books in particular stand out for me: Simisola (1995), Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999). They deal with racism, environmental issues and child abuse. Rendell has always held left of centre views, and was active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show ‘the world as it is’ led her to tackle issues she thought important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond most police procedurals. It is this grounded, thoughtful appraisal of aspects of British society that will be most missed.
The books that come after these are still good; I’ve reviewed several of them, and they continue up to the time when Wexford has retired – though he can’t keep out of the detecting business. They include The Monster in the Box (2009) here, The Vault (2011) here and sadly the last one, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) here.
For all that I admire the Wexford series, however, my favourite of Rendell’s books remains one of her stand-alone Barbara Vine ones – The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (1998). One difference between the Vine stories and the Wexford and the other psychological mystery Rendell stories is that the former involve much more reference to events in the past. The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy also differs from the Wexfords in being a mystery story, rather than a crime story. It might even be suggested that it is a novel about family relationships rather than a mystery story; it is a story about deception, rather than crime. Sarah Candless is the daughter of a famous novelist, Gerald Candless. After his death, she sets out to write his biography. But all is not as it seems when she beings looking into her father’s past. Like a lot of other mystery stories, it is a quest, and it builds up a strong sense of mystery, and ultimately, suspense. It makes for a complex and satisfying story.
You can read the obituary of Ruth Rendell in the Guardian here. In 2014 she created a new detective, Colin Quell, for The Girl Next Door. A must-read for me.