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Remembering Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)

 

When the publishers began reading the first manuscripts submitted by an unknown writer named Ruth Rendell they must instantly have guessed that they had found a winner. Indeed, they had found an author that would acquire a large and devoted fan club of readers. She sustained her successful career for fifty whole years, writing more than fifty books. The Guardian newspaper said: “Ms Rendell exercises a grip on her readers as relentless as an anaconda’s.”

 

The opening chapters of Ruth Rendell’s first-published novel From Doon with Death(1964) have an easy-flowing and yet a compellingly insistent, curiosity-arousing narrative style. Mr Parsons is a low income earner who gives his stay-at-home wife a housekeeping allowance of five pounds every week. There are no children in their marriage. No wonder that Mr Parsons is so bewildered to find one afternoon, on his return home from work, that his wife has vanished. The married couple live such grounded and humdrum lives that her sudden disappearance is seemingly as inexplicable as it is unexpected.

 

In Shake Hands For Ever (1975) a distrait husband finds his wife’s body lying dead upstairs when he returns home from work. Again, the circumstances lack immediate explanation: he and his wife lead a solitary existence in an isolated countryside cottage, and there is little expectation that she should meet a sudden violent death. Chief Inspector Wexford is certain that he knows who has murdered the wife and he too is relentless as an anaconda as he searches for decisive evidence. The trail takes him to Notting Hill in West London and causes him to replicate an exact similar type of surreptitious unofficial sleuthing that he did in a bedsit district of Chelsea, behind the King’s Road, in the story Murder Being Once Done (1972).

 

Wexford’s work has to be unofficial in Shake Hands For Ever because the Chief Constable has ordered him to drop the investigation; and it is unofficial in Murder Being Once Done because Wexford is on sick leave and is meant to be resting (and dieting to lose weight).

 

“It was by studying human nature and patterns of behaviour rather than relying solely on circumstantial evidence that Wexford had had his successes.”

 

In that little sentence in mid-story of Murder Being Once Done Ruth Rendell captures a key essence of her popular and heroic detective. The public, and the critics, have come to hail Ms Rendell as a skilled exponent of the psychological murder mystery genre of crime fiction. A typical Wexford story will find him frustrated that factual clues are elusive. He stoically submits himself, or his staff, to the necessary process of dull, dogged and determined step-by-step investigation: the interviewing of the deceased’s relatives, friends, neighbours, employers; the combing of the deceased’s possessions; the searching of police files, newspaper records, public authority archives. But underlying all this Wexford never loses his instinct and belief that he will correctly discern the behaviour and thought-processes of the murderer, such that eventually he will unearth “a shape looming out of fog”.

 

Ruth Rendell – her later career

 

Arrow Books reissued Ruth Rendell’s very first novel From Doon with Death as a paperback in 2014. Ms Rendell had penned a fifty-years-on reflective postscript. She mooted that her story wouldn’t pass muster now as a debut manuscript. The key characters, their domesticity and their behaviour would be dismissed as far too slow and outdated for readers in 2014; social conventions and manners (a key element of the plot) have moved on irretrievably; altogether, the world is much faster-paced.

 

A notion of that can be found in The Girl Next Door (2014). It is the last Ruth Rendell novel to be published during her lifetime. Wexford faces a tough task indeed. The year is 2014: the age of DNA; the internet, the iPod, the mobile phone (used by a cheating husband for the sole purpose of secret calls to his mistress), the matinee of the new play Once in Charing Cross Road. But the crime to be investigated by Wexford was committed in 1944. He must re-imagine context of London seventy years earlier:

 

“The only people allowed to make love were married couples. Young lovers couldn’t go to a hotel. They were quite likely to be asked for their marriage certificate.”

 

In the story A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970) Wexford had already needed to lecture his staff on the new sexual mores following the Swinging Sixties in Britain. “Times have changed. Young women don’t look on marriage as the be-all and end-all of existence any more. Girls like Katje [the Dutch au-pair] won’t help kill a man’s wife just so he can make an honest woman of them. At present she’s out for a good time without any worry.”

 

Made popular by the actor George Baker in the long-running and successful television series of the novels, Wexford was placed by his inventor Ruth Rendell in the fictional mid-Sussex town of Kingsmarkham and its surrounding region. Ms Rendell later revealed that she had been thinking of the real-life town of Midhurst where she had briefly lived. By the time of writing The Girl Next Door she had firmly established her ability to capture most accurately and captivatingly the atmosphere of real English cities, towns, streets and postcodes. She would bring them alive with perceptive and sometimes even poetic passages of description, such as these of London:

 

“Wilman Park was neither Camberwell nor Kennington but a dismal area of slummy greyness and absence of trees.”

 

“He took the St Mark’s Bridge over the Grand Union Canal. He counted seven houseboats alongside each other in Cumberland Basin and one in front of the Chinese teahouse. On its flat roof a woman lay sunbathing in a green bikini. The finger of the minaret pointed into a pale blue sky on which the tiny clouds made a net.”

 

Tributes to Ruth Rendell

 

Ruth Rendell has received the highest praise from her own older generation of peer authors and also from the current younger generation:

 

‘One of the foremost of our writers of crime fiction” – P.D. James.

 

‘The most brilliant mystery novelist of our time’ – Patricia Cornwell.

 

In his foreword to the new paperback version of From Doon with Death, Ian Rankin has praised Ms Rendell – by now Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE – for her “manifest gifts as a storyteller.”

 

Let us leave the final verdict with the publishers, Arrow Books, on the back cover of their latest reissue of her first-ever book:

 

“Chief Inspector Wexford is one of the most memorable detectives ever created. Ruth Rendell’s timeless Wexford novels continue to intrigue, enthral and surprise readers, time and time again.”

 

Jerry Dowlen

December 2015

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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