May 6, 2015
Hail & Farewell Ruth Rendell
by Zeljka Marosevic
The crime writer Ruth Rendell died on Saturday 2nd May at the age of 85.
Rendell was best known for her 24 Inspector Wexford books, which she began writing in 1964, beginning with From Doon With Death. But in the 1980s she also started producing psychological thrillers under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, which allowed her to explore darker subjects and exploit more experimental forms of storytelling. She described the two personas as the two sides of herself, writing, “Ruth is tougher, colder, more analytical, possibly more aggressive … Barbara is more feminine.”
Altogether Rendell published 65 novels, 3 novellas and 7 short story collections, and sold millions of copies of books. ‘I am a wonderful catch, you know,’ she told a journalist in 2005, who was surprised to hear that the then 75-year old writer had received two marriage proposals since becoming a widow, “I have a lot of money.” Her writing capacities were apparently inexhaustible, and another novel in the Wexford series, Dark Corners is forthcoming this year.
During her career Rendell was awarded a number of the most prestigious prizes in crime, including the Crime Writers’ Association in gold, silver and diamond lifetime achievement award, the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award (twice), and was longlisted for the ‘lost’ 1970 Booker Prize in 1970, a telling indication that she should be remembered as more than simply a genre writer. She was made a CBE in 1996 and entered the House of Lords as a Labour peer in 1997.
Tributes for Rendell reveal her to have been a tireless writer, who rose at 5:30am every morning to fit in exercise (on her cross trainer or in pilates classes), long periods of writing and, when she joined the House of Lords, active participation in Westminster life, where she campaigned for humanitarian causes including the battle against FGM. She also had a wicked sense of humour and a proclivity for mischief when it came to interviews, as the Guardian reports:
Asked once too often what she would have been if she hadn’t become a novelist, she said a country and western singer. It came as a shock when, during an interview on Norwegian TV, she was handed a microphone and asked to sing.
A particular quirk of her life came in the form of divorcing her husband, and then deciding to remarry him two years later. The Guardian again:
Asked why, she said that after they separated, she found she couldn’t live without him, because he was the sort of man with whom you could go on a 200-mile car trip and never have to say a word.
In a tribute to her friend, the crime writer Val McDermid praised Rendell for transforming the crime genre:
Along with her contemporaries PD James and Reginald Hill, Ruth transformed what had become a staid and formulaic genre into something that offered scope for a different kind of crime novel. In their separate ways they turned it into a prism for examining the world around them with a critical eye. Their work kicked a door open for subsequent generations of crime writers to storm through and their popularity among readers gave others the confidence to follow in their footsteps, secure in the knowledge that an audience existed for crime fiction that wasn’t pulp.
So too, in the Bookseller, Jonathan Ruppin, bookseller and web editor at Foyles, outlined how Rendell’s writing had influenced a whole new crop of contemporary writers:
She continued a tradition of great British female crime writing, alongside authors such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers and PD James. The layers of psychological complexity we see in recent hits such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train owe so much to her finest creation, Inspector Wexford: British crime writing just wouldn’t been as loved and respected as it is worldwide without her contribution.
In a Telegraph interview in 2005, Rendell spoke about death, remarking:
Oh, I think about death every day…What it would be like, and why it would happen to me. I think we ought to think about it. I suppose that what I really think is that it would be humiliating to be afraid of it.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.