Ruth Rendell - A Celebration of her Novels

It was with great sadness that I heard like the rest of the world yesterday (Saturday 2nd May 2015) that crime writer, Baroness Ruth Rendell had passed away. I will never forget that frisson of excitement when I read my first Ruth Rendell novel which was 'To Fear a Painted Devil'. in 1984. I was a teenager then and looking for more exciting writers after having exhausted the classics like Christie, Conan Doyle and Ngaio Marsh. And then I stumbled over this little gem in our local library and that was the beginning of my reading 'relationship' with Ruth Rendell's books. Soon after I picked up her new one, 'The Killing Doll' and that blew my mind. Never had I read an author who was willing to lead me down such dark corridors of the mind. It really was a revelation.

It became a family joke that nobody would get anything out of me for a few days when I had the new Ruth Rendell in my hot little hands. Mum would mention how I would squirrel myself away in my room until that last page had been turned. Even my sister rang me once to ask if I had the new Rendell paperback, 'The Veiled One' (having only just started work my paltry 1980's wage didn't stretch to buying hardbacks) and when the response was in the negative she instructed me not to buy it - knowing I would as soon as I saw it as she had got me it already. My first Rendell hardback was 'The Bridesmaid', again bought me by my sister for my birthday. I coveted that book as though it was liquid gold! And I still have it today.

Rendell never rested on her laurels and reinvented herself over twenty years after her first novel with the Barbara Vine novels. For me, (in particular Asta's Book which I have recently been re-reading for the umpteenth time), is the most perfect example of crime fiction within a literary novel. She was the trailblazer that showed you could write about crime without 'dumbing down', that you could be literary and still keep the suspense rolling. It is through her determination that has allowed many writers of today like Susan Hill, Kate Atkinson and John Banville to produce crime novels of a literary standard which has silenced any sneering critics.

In August 2014 I was lucky enough to interview Baroness Rendell. I had all the symptoms of meeting someone who I can only class as my literary idol - sweaty palms, swollen tongue, dry throat and that unenviable fear of saying something completely and utterly stupid. (Her reputation of not enjoying interviews was well known). Thankfully, my fears were unfounded and Baroness Rendell was absolutely charming and welcoming. I think what swung it in my favour was she could tell from my questions and during our conversation that I had read all her work. She could see that I was firstly a reader and an interviewer second.

My last abiding image of Ruth Rendell was her in the doorway of her home. Standing by the gate of her house I instinctively turned and waved as I walked off towards the tube station. She gave me a lovely smile and waved back. That image will stay with me for the rest of my days. I feel blessed to have had an audience with my idol - not something many people can say. Later I heard that Baroness Rendell had said she had quite enjoyed herself during our interview - which is high praise, indeed.

During our chat she said she didn't want to live if she couldn't write. She had more books planned and couldn't ever think of not writing. It was in her blood, her DNA to write. She has left a wonderful legacy for us and many other generations to enjoy. She will always be classed as one of the giants of crime fiction. Between her and P.D. James, these two women changed the face of crime fiction for ever. They delivered crime novels of quality. They nursed an ailing genre that was stuck in a rut and dragged it kicking and screaming in to the 21st Century and made it grow up and mature. Many authors mention Rendell as their inspiration. That is why Rendell and her books will live on. Although we have lost the great lady herself, her work will ensure Rendell always remains immortal.

Below is my original interview with Baroness Rendell from August 2014 to celebrate her fifty years in publishing.

Arriving at her London home, Baroness Ruth Rendell was immediately welcoming. I had requested a personal interview to celebrate the year that marks fifty years as a published writer. Over that time Ruth Rendell has produced twenty-five cases for her beloved creation, Wexford and his friend and colleague, Mike Burden. Twenty-eight psychological novels as well as fourteen more under the Barbara Vine label. Add to this six short story collections and other factual works and you have one very impressive body of work.

Her books have been praised across the world. As many writers continued to cling on to a vanished age, crime fiction was sneered at and derided for being out of touch with the rest of the world. From her entrance in 1964, Rendell pushed and kicked at the boundaries of the crime genre, making them malleable when once they were rigid and constrained. When once most murders were committed amongst the privileged few in a snow-bound mansion, Rendell brought murder to the suburbs and peeled back the layers of suburban life to show that every working man and woman could also have their demons.

By involving world issues within her plots, Rendell shone a spotlight on domestic abuse, racism, incest, transvestitism and female genital mutilation for which Rendell has been a great pioneer against this brutal practice. Many current writers of the genre have cited Rendell as their influence and the reason why they chose the genre because she had shown them that change could be made, that crime novels could be suspenseful, but also literary.


C.S. In your book, ‘The Reason Why’ you write that you are more interested in the ‘why’, rather than the ‘who’. Why do you feel the ‘why’ is more interesting to you?

R.R. I am fascinated by what goes on in people’s minds, why people think the way they do. For me it is a matter of motivation. Most of the people in my books are not criminals, they are normal people and yet they are driven to the edge by different choices or events in their lives. That is what I think about most when writing my books.

C.S. Your new novel, 'The Girl Next Door' mainly deals with the issue of age and the transparency of OAP’s. Why did you choose this subject for this novel?

R.R. When I started out writing ‘The Girl Next Door’ I didn’t really think about the elderly. The spark for the book started with the childhood experiences during the Second World War in the tunnels in Loughton. Although all the children in the book are fictional, some of the events are born from fact. As children we did find tunnels in Loughton and explored them as any child would in those days. We never realised that these tunnels were a foundation for someone’s house that was meant to be built and delayed because of the war. We cooked potatoes in those tunnels and many of the other things I describe in the book. Despite getting older your childhood always stays with you and that is what I wanted to convey.

I had to do some research as to how much Loughton had changed since I had lived there but surprisingly not much had changed. Due to Epping Forest surrounding it and the forest being protected from being built on, very little could hugely change the Loughton landscape. What I didn’t know but found out was Loughton was meant to be built up in the 30’s, but the war shelved that until the mid-forties.

C.S. You have been writing now for fifty years and have a large body of work to show in that time. What do you think keeps the fire burning in your belly to continue writing?

R.R. I write because that is what I do, it is what I love and I am lucky that people like my books.

People say to me are you ‘still’ writing? I don’t like that word, ‘still’. I am still subject to the old biological impediments, but I will continue to write for as long as I can.

C.S. You tend to put in dry observations in to your novels. Do you think a sly sense of humour is necessary when dealing with dark topics?

R.R. I get amused by certain situations. They have to make me laugh and if I feel it is right for that part of the book, then I will put it in. I have to get a sense of fun or otherwise the book is dull. My books are not too dark but people think they are, but that is how they perceive the story. However, I don’t want my book to be dull. I would hate them to be dull and a sense of humour always balances everything out.

C.S. Many of your characters use the London Underground in books like Live Flesh, The Killing Doll and King Solomon’s Carpet. What is it about the underground that attracts you to use it in your books?

R.R. I love the London Underground! I go on the Underground more or less every day. One afternoon I was sitting in Baker Street waiting for a train when I thought I would write a novel based on the Underground and I got very excited. I got to Notting Hill Gate and the roof went very high there and ideas started to come to me. I got in touch with London Underground and they took me on a fascinating tour of abandoned stations. They also told me about kids who have been known to ride on the top of the trains, although they have denied that since. But all this detail fuelled me and I started to write it and that was ‘King Solomon’s Carpet’ which is one of my novels I am most proud of.

C.S. What novels would you say were the easiest to write and were most like your original idea at the beginning?

R.R. I would never say writing a novel is easy! Most of my books have not been easy to write with edits and re-editing many times over. I would not have been satisfied if any of my books had been easy to write. The novel that I did enjoy and was most like my original idea was ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’. I also enjoy the Wexford’s but that is mainly because I like Wexford’s character as a man and as a detective.

C.S. You have been classed as one of the hardest working authors of our time, allegedly starting a new book when you have just finished the previous one. Is this right and what propels you to start the next one immediately?

R.R. I don’t known about hardest working writer, but I do have a break from writing. Saying that, I could never get to the end of a book without having an idea for the next one.

C.S. You have been a staunch supporter of the outlawing of FGM. You also placed the subject in a Wexford novel. Are you pleased with the way the law is progressing to outlaw this practice?

R.R. FGM is ghastly and horrible. I have been dealing with it for over twenty years and I still find it hard to believe. I became involved in 1985 when nobody knew anything about it. I pushed the FGM act through the House of Lords in 2003 which prohibited all forms as there are three in this hideous practice. But we have not really begun to make a difference as where are the prosecutions? Despite the new laws we now have the issue that girls will have to take their parents to court and prosecute them. This is a huge issue for many women and girls who will end up with nothing and have no one if they prosecute the parents. Many I spoke to in the House of Lords were shocked and horrified when I explained to them about FGM.

C.S. Many years ago you said you were toying with the idea of writing your autobiography. Is this still something you are thinking about or do you feel fiction is safer and/or preferable to fact?

R.R. I never said that. I would never write my autobiography. People would pick it apart. I will keep to fiction.

C.S. What would be your one piece of advice to any writer starting out on their creative journey?

R.R. I have no advice. If people want to write then advice is no good. Simply write. They need to go on writing but be prepared for a long and hard journey before your novel is sitting on the shelf in the bookshop.

Ruth Rendell's last novel, Dark Corners (Hutchinson/Random House) will be published in Oct 2015.


Ruth Rendell - The Girl Next Door

"Rendell’s imagination is a marvel of engineering; finely tuned and running smoothly with precision."

The 1940’s: It was all about the hands, all Woody could see were their hands touching, his on top of hers before they quickly withdrew them as he entered the room. But Woody had seen them, their deception and something had to be done about it.

Present Day: During work to add a basement to a house in Loughton, Essex a grisly discovery is made when a tin is unearthed amongst the foundations. The tin contains the severed hands of a man and a woman. Through forensic science, the hands are thought to have been placed in the tin about sixty years ago during the Second World War. The main question though is who did they belong to?

The ‘qanats’, an Arabic word for tunnels as christened by Daphne, was used by the children as their territory, their domain during the war years. There they could roast potatoes and be away from the watchful eye of their parents, until Woody threw them all out and demanded they didn’t enter the tunnels again.

With the new discovery, the surviving children, now adults in the winter of their lives look back on their time in the ‘qanats’ and what they have done with their lives. After many years apart new relationships bloom and re-start leading to some life changing decisions; and all because of the hands in the tin.

‘The Girl Next Door’ is much more a Vine novel with the pull of the past being very significant and powerful in Rendell’s latest book. There is no secret as to who planted the severed hands in the tin or why, but they remain the catalyst for what happens in the present. Rendell has shown with masterly fashion that being retired does not make one suddenly defunct or devoid of emotions such as lust, love and hate.

Rendell perfectly paints a portrait of the war years, the innocence of childhood during the bombing runs alongside the avarice and evil of those who took advantage of a country in disarray. This is a book about life and how the actions of one person decades ago can still have an effect on those alive today. Even here Rendell deals with a particular subject that most would shy away from. This is an extraordinary piece of work for someone with fifty years of writing under their belt, and you can only look on in admiration that a writer with such a back catalogue still persists to push not only boundaries, but herself.

This is very much a literary novel and by the end Rendell has managed to deliver swift demises on some, lingering regrets on another and a happy ending for a certain individual. This is a chronicle of life and shows that Rendell’s imagination is a marvel of engineering; finely tuned and running smoothly with precision.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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