Some authors come along at the perfect moment. Serendipity brought me Ruth Rendell.
I needed—not wanted, needed—a good book in the spring of 2015. I had been in a literary dry spell for months, the last dozen books inspiring nothing more than a lackluster “cool story, bro.” What I needed was something to take my mind off my father’s sudden death the month before. I had held his hand as he took his last breaths after falling and breaking his neck. I couldn’t stop thinking about his decision—“No more machine! No more machine!”—to go off the ventilator. Then I brought a Rendell mystery for 99 cents during a Kindle flash sale.
It might sound perverse that I found solace in a sordid psychological thriller about a girl raised by a serial killer mother. Yet that is what happened. The wonderfully intricate story of a girl raised in isolation on an English estate reminded me that I could think of other things. That life had to go on. At the end of The Crocodile Bird, I was all set to send her a thank-you note—gratitude for creating a fictional death that took my mind off a real-life version. An unsettling coincidence made that impossible. Ruth Rendell had died as I was reading her. (The same thing happened with Oliver Sacks! Luckily, my death-by-reading seems to be over now.)
Since I never got to write that note, let me do so now. Let me count the ways in which the Grand Dame of Crime has become one of my favorite authors.
Although Rendell is most famous for her Inspector Wexford whodunits, it is her psychological thrillers where her brilliance shines. At least, I think so. They are whydunits where the mystery is not the whom, but the why.
It is perhaps her 1977 A Judgment in Stone that best illustrates her skill at psychological suspense. The first line reads: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” Herein you have all of the essentials of a murder mystery: the killer’s identity, her motive, and the victims’ identities. What’s left? Well, a lot—191 pages to be exact. Although we know the “essentials” of the crime, none of it makes sense. Why would illiteracy drive anyone to murder? Why an entire family? Why was this Eunice illiterate anyway? These questions, ladies and gentlemen, will take a whole glorious novel to answer. What a brave approach!
Whydunits are challenging to write. You cannot rely on red herrings or obfuscation. Nor can the motives be as prosaic as greed, sociopathy, or a mysterious conspiracy. Motives so common in most crime novels that they merit an aisle of their own. You need something more compelling: our fiobles and the forces that shape them. It wasn’t merely Eunice Parchman’s illiteracy and sociopathy that sped her to homicide. It was also the Coverdales’ elitism and superciliousness. No murder happens in a vacuum, and sometimes the why of it is more fascinating than the who. Rendel is a grandmaster of the whydunit.
When The Guardian calmed Rendell and her contemporary P.D. James the “George Eliot and Jane Austen of the homicidal novel,” this was no hyperbole. It was just a fact. These ladies elevated the weatherworn genre that suffered a dry spell after the exit of pioneers such as Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy Sayers. Under Rendell’s pen, the genre became literature.
Rendell introduced many literary elements to the staid crime novel. Her prose rose far above the pedestrian to achieve smooth elegance. Her multifaceted characters added psychological depth to the lurid genre full of unrepentant sociopaths and babbling psychos. Her sense of atmosphere infused a sense of place, whether it was the slums of South London or the fen of the English countryside. All of this is true, and have been mentioned countless times in praise of Rendell’s work. But if you ask me, it’s really her narrative flair that gives her work that literary punch.
My favorite Rendell, The Brimstone Wedding, has interconnecting stories of two women embroiled in extramarital affairs. One ongoing and the other having loved and lost long ago. The dual first-person narratives are set up with Stella, a seemingly prim and proper elderly woman dying of lung cancer, telling her nurse the tale of her love affair that is somehow connected to the disappearance of a B-movie actress. This complex narrative structure improved the story, as you got to hear directly from both women.
After a few moments, when she thought she could summon an adequate voice, she pressed the red button on the recorder and began to speak, tentatively at first.
I am speaking, she said, into a machine which describes itself as a cassette recorder and computer data recorder, whatever that may be. I have never done this before, and I can’t yet tell if the device is working or not. I shall stop now and try to play it back.
I am speaking, said the recorder, into a machine which describes itself … Stella listened to her own voice and thought how much older it sounded than she had expected. It sounded pedantic and precise and old-fashioned and old. She was still vain, she thought, even now. Dying, actually dying, she would probably still care how she looked and sounded. She closed her eyes briefly, then pressed the red button and began again.
–The Brimstone Wedding, 57-58
When I read stuff like this, my inner literary nerd squees. If you ask me—and nobody does—a good narrative elevates a good story to a great one and a great one to brilliant. Lucky for Rendell, she always has great stories.
After falling in love with her writing, I fell in love with the writer herself. The more I found out about her, the more she became my writing idol. Over her fifty-year career where she published at least one crime novel a year, she maintainined high standards. Not only was she prolific, she upended the mystery genre not once, not twice, but three times.
Her first Inspector Wexford novel From Doon to Death debuted in 1964 with the standard police procedure scenario: an inspector is tasked with solving a grisly murder. The predictability ends there. Unlike the giants of the British detective novel—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple—Inspector Wexford wasn’t a genius nor did he rub elbows with the well-to-do. He was an intelligent but otherwise ordinary Joe, who just wanted to figure out who did it. Throughout his fictional career, Wexford would confront the darker side of everyday society—domestic violence, anti-immigration ethos, racism—that was downright uncouth back then. It is little wonder that Rendell became known for her liberal politics and involvement in political affairs.
Not content with “only” modernizing a genre, Rendell did something very few mystery writers did in the 1970s: wrote stand-alone crime novels. Back then, you wrote serials, or you wrote nothing. It is in those novels that she developed her brand of whydunits that shined so brightly in A Judgment in Stone and The Crocodile Bird. Freed of the conventions of the serial detective novels, Rendell coudl explore the why of murder and mayhem and gave us some great whydunits in the process.
The third and final shock came in 1986 when she debuted A Dark-Adapted Eye under a nome de plume, Barbara Vine. This strand of books takes more narrative risks, moving away from the more traditional chronological storytelling format. Asta’s Book—one of my favorite—tells the story using a mixture of first-person narrative, diary entries, and a journalistic excerpt of a murder trial. The entangled web of narratives converged to form a subtle mystery about immigration in the early 20th century, a missing child, and a grisly murder. Not only did the Vine books add literary flair to a hard-nosed genre, they also subverted the whole idea that a mystery must be solved. Some Vines leave you with the question of whether a murder had occurred at all (after taking you on helluva ride). Boom, a genre subverted not once, not twice, but thrice!
The Baroness of Babergh never rested pretty on her reputation. Into her eighties, she maintained a demanding schedule of rising early, vigorous exercise, writing daily, and appearing at the House of Lords where she was a member. I can only hope to be half of a writer that she is. She balanced quantity and quality while delving into the darker side of the human psyche without losing her optimism.
It is for these reasons that I love Ruth Rendell. If you haven’t read her yet, I hope you’ll give her a chance.
More on Ruth Rendell:
Ruth Rendell obiturary - The Guardian
Rendell and James: Giants of Detective Fiction - The Guardian
Ruth Rendell: The Peer Who Never Stops Plotting - The Telegraph
Ruth Rendell - Wikipedia