50th Anniversary of 'From Doon With Death'

2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Rendell’s first novel. I remember at one event Ruth Rendell mentioning that she was paid something in the region of £75.00 for her first published work. If only her publishers had known then what we all know now!

It was not long after this first offering that Rendell was soon building a name for herself amongst writers, critics and readers. Rendell has never shied away from such topics as incest, racism, illiteracy, and homosexuality. She has delved in to the issues of domestic abuse, female genital mutilation and shown the lengths people will go when confronted with bypasses and motorways being built on their backyard; an issue that has been reignited with the planned route of the HS2.

It has been about twenty years since I read ‘From Doon With Death’. Rendell herself says, this plot is very much of its time when Wexford’s first case appeared in print in the early sixties. As Rendell states in her afterword at the back of this new edition, Wexford was supposed to be a ‘one off’. She had no intention of bringing him back, especially over such a long period of time and never imagined her creation would be brought to life on the television.

Re-reading ‘From Doon With Death’ I see Wexford has changed drastically over the years, as has Burden. Here, Wexford is the cynic and the young Burden appears so young and optimistic. In fact, over the years there appears to have been a role reversal. Wexford is now the one who tries to understand the rapidly changing world around him. Burden on the other hand has become bitter and looks down on those who enjoy the excesses that money brings or those who show little intelligence.

Having spent so many years reading about Wexford’s family, it surprised me that despite mentioning his wife in her first book, Wexford doesn’t name his family nor are they introduced. Dora doesn’t even appear in Rendell’s first offering.

Rendell advises that her first book should be seen ‘as an historical novel’. I have to admit that some parts of the book certainly show an age long gone. The women marry and become housewives, whether they have children or not and the men are the workers. Also, the reason for the murder being committed, although pushing the boundaries back in 1964, would not be a strong enough motive in 2014! This story is populated with the kind of people that have become synonymous with Rendell’s books. They are rude, arrogant, extremely unlikeable and fascinating.

One particular point I loved whilst reading this book was when Wexford and Burden watch out for a couple they want to question. They sit in the Olive and Dove pub and watch the house opposite, knowing the occupants are not home as they have left the garage doors open and the car isn’t there. Oh, to be able to leave your garage doors open and not find it completely empty when you got home! It simply couldn’t happen these days.

I wrote to Ruth Rendell (my one and only fan letter) and pointed out how Wexford was ‘be-devilled’ by women. Over the years many women have led Wexford a merry dance: Helen Missal in ‘From Doon With Death’ to Anita Margolis ‘Wolf To The Slaughter’. The woman whose fingerprint is found on the bath in ‘Shake Hands For Ever’ leads Wexford to the precipice of obsession. Also there has been Dorothy Sanders in ‘The Veiled One’ and Daisy from ‘Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter’ amongst many others.

Rendell claims that her first Wexford was an exercise in constructing a plot of mystery and suspense, something she has mastered over the years. A novel of this length was the norm in those days and it wasn’t until later that Rendell could spread her wings and show the world that a suspenseful novel could be just that, a novel of power and great writing threaded through with suspense. ‘From Doon With Death’ does not have the range as shown by Rendell in later titles like the brilliant ‘Road Rage’, the haunting ‘Simisola’ or the gripping, and in my opinion the best Wexford, ‘Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter’.

Time and again crime writers of today often quote Ruth Rendell as their inspiration, her books have shown today’s writers that the people in the novel are just as important as the plot, that you can be a mouthpiece for the issues of the day.

I am sure Rendell herself would love to re-write ‘From Doon With Death’ as any writer wishes to do with their first book after such a length of time. However, readers, new and old should read this title as a promise of a series that matures like a fine wine over five decades. With her new novel, ‘The Girl Next Door’ released in August it is apparent Ruth Rendell has no urge to stop writing, which is music to the ears for her legion of fans. This is wonderful news to me. I have loved Rendell's innovative and astounding novels since 1985, so I couldn't be more delighted that there are more Rendell novels to look forward to!

It just leaves me to wish Ruth Rendell and ‘From Doon With Death’ a very Happy 50th Anniversary!


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