Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell (born 1930) was one of the world's most skillful and popular writers of mysteries and suspense thrillers.

Ruth Grasemann was born on February 17, 1930, in London, England, and was educated at Laughton High School in Essex. She worked as a newspaper reporter and sub-editor in West Essex from 1948 to 1952. In 1950 she married Donald Rendell, whom she later divorced, then remarried in 1977. They had one son.

Rendell was variously described as the "new Agatha Christie," the "new First Lady of Mystery," and the "British Simenon." While she was hailed primarily for her creation of character, she was also praised for her inventive plots, her keen social observation and incisive social criticism, her evocative settings, and her startling and often grim endings. But what especially raised her writing above the level of much detective fiction was her masterly control of elements of style (figurative language, dialogue, and irony) more often associated with "serious" fiction.

A prolific writer with consistently high standards, Rendell completed 27 novels and three short story collections. These works fall into two separate sub-genres of crime fiction. The first is the straightforward British police procedural, set in Kingsmarkham, which features Inspector Wexford as the central figure. The second is the individual psychological suspense thriller, with no detective and with no recurring characters. As noted by Francis Wyndham, Rendell excels equally in both forms: "Ruth Rendell's remarkable talent has been able to accommodate the rigid rule of the reassuring mystery story (where a superficial logic conceals a basic fantasy) as well as the wider range of the disturbing psychological thriller (where an appearance of nightmare overlays a scrupulous realism)."

Advertisement

The Kingsmarkham Series

It was in her first novel, From Doon with Death (1964), that Rendell introduced her central character, Detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford of Kingsmarkham, a particularly murder-prone village in Sussex. In this and the 14 Wexford novels that followed the reader is given a realistic portrayal of an intelligent and admirable human being. Wexford is a great reader with a ready supply of literary quotations. Frequently these quotes are thematically or symbolically pertinent to the plot, and sometimes a quotation fragment serves as the book's title.

A civilized man with decent values, Inspector Wexford is unusually tolerant and compassionate. His success in case-solving is often based on his ability to see in people emotions and motivations that other detectives would overlook. In Some Lie and Some Die (1973), a novel centered around a rock music festival, it is Wexford's understanding of young people and his acceptance of their values which are instrumental to his solution of the case.

After his first appearance in the series at the age of 52, Wexford continued to grow, coping with domestic problems, conflicts with superiors, and personal illness. He is a vulnerable and thereby appealing character: a detective who transcends his crime-solving function.

To add texture and density to the series, Rendell created a "company of players" who were featured from novel to novel. Accounts of these characters (Wexford's family members, friends, and associates) are more than entertaining narrative digressions. They act as foils or provide frames for characters involved in the crimes, and they contribute to the development of the plot. For example, in the story "Inspector Wexford on Holiday," Dora, his supportive and sympathetic wife, plays an essential role in uncovering the clue which solves the mystery. In A Sleeping Life (1978), his daughter Sylvia's personal crisis serves as a catalyst for an examination of sexuality and the women's movement, both pertinent to the crime at hand. Wexford's loving relationship with his actress daughter Sheila offsets and highlights the selfish and unhealthy relationship of the Fanshawes, the key characters in The Best Man To Die (1969).

An important character in the series is Detective Inspector Michael Burden, Wexford's aide and friend. Though 20 years younger than Wexford, he is older in temperament. Rigid, prudish, and generally conservative at the outset, Burden matures and becomes more charitable as a consequence of his association with Wexford. An important stage in his growth takes place in No More Dying Then (1971), in which Burden's personal tragedy, the death of his wife, is central to the plot, and later, in Put on by Cunning (1981), there are signs that Burden may even have become a cultural match for Wexford.

Rendell's portrayal of the ongoing friendship between the two men creates a continuity in the series. In sharp contrast to the sick fantasies and perverse behavior they, as policemen, must deal with, their own psyches are normal, their view of life and humanity realistic, and their relationship with each other symbiotic and healthy.

Advertisement

The Suspense Thrillers

Rendell once stated that the creation of character was her primary interest, and it is characterization that invests the Wexford series with extraordinary richness and depth. Her fascination with character is even more apparent in the non-series books, the suspense thrillers.

Here she specialized in examining the inner guilt and darkness of her characters, whether they were drably commonplace or alarmingly aberrant. In fact, Rendell achieved suspense precisely by combining the more traditional elements of crime fiction with her rare gift for psychologically astute character study. In her muted, understated style, she leads the reader into uneasy identification with a compulsive strangler (A Demon in My View, 1976), a failed writer (The Face of Trespass, 1974), an illiterate housekeeper (A Judgement in Stone, 1977), and a soulbartering teenager (The Killing Doll, 1984). The reader experiences the desperate alienation of these characters and is absorbed into the excitement of spotting and tracking the victims all the way to the murderous conclusions.

In 1986 two more novels were published—Live Flesh, a psychological suspense story in which the main character is a rapist and murderer, and A Dark-Adapted Eye, written under the pen name of Barbara Vine, which deals with intimations of various crimes within a conventional family. Two more "Barbara Vine" novels were published in 1987—A Fatal Inversion and Talking to Strange Men.

Rendell's mastery of crime fiction was widely recognized and honored. She received many awards, including the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allen Poe Award for short story and the Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger Award. Her works have been translated into 14 languages. More than a million copies have been printed in English. Rendell continues to write mysteries from her home in Suffolk, England.

Advertisement

Further Reading on Ruth Rendell

To date there are no biographical studies of Ruth Rendell. Reviews and critical articles abound; among the most helpful are Jane S. Bakerman's chapter in 10 Women of Mystery (1981), edited by Earl F. Bargainnier, and an "Interview with Ruth Rendell," by Diana Cooper-Clark in the Spring 1981 edition of the Armchair Detective.