By Harriet Devine
Ruth Rendell’s death on 2 May this year has brought to an end a career spanning an astonishing fifty years. By the time you are reading this, there will have been huge numbers of obituaries and tributes, but I’m adding my twopennyworth because I thought Shiny needed its own.
By pure chance, I had read and reviewed one of Rendell’s 1980s novels, The Veiled One, on my blog just five days before her death. I hadn’t read it before, and I was really bowled over by how good it was. It was a Wexford novel (basically a police procedural series) which I had always thought of as possibly slightly inferior to her psychological thrillers, which were usually published as Barbara Vine. But I decided I had been wrong. Both are brilliant. I’m still not sure how she did it, but she managed to imbue her writing with an extraordinary sense of dread, even if you had no idea what it was you were dreading. She will be much missed, but it would take someone a while to read all her work: 24 Wexford books, about the same number of standalone novels, 15 Barbara Vines, and eight short story collections.
Rather than a full biography or appraisal of such a long writing life, here are five fascinating facts, together with some quotations from various recent interviews and articles.
Five Fascinating Facts
1. Rendell’s first job after leaving school was as a features reporter for her local paper, the Chigwell Times. She was a sacked after she filed a story about a local sports club dinner she hadn’t actually attended, having got a copy of the after dinner speech ahead of time. Unfortunately, not having been present, she failed to mention the fact that the speaker had died halfway through his speech.
2. Rendell considered herself to be a suspense writer rather than a crime writer:
“Suspense is my thing. I think I am able to make people want to keep turning pages. They want to know what happens. So I can do that. Mind you, I think this ought to apply to any fiction, because however brilliant it is in other respects, you don’t want to go on reading it unless it does that to you.”
“I don’t get sick of him because he’s me. He’s very much me….He doesn’t look like me, of course, but the way he thinks and his principles and his ideas and what he likes doing, that’s me. So I think you don’t get tired of yourself….He likes to read what I like to read and he likes the music I like, all that sort of thing. It’s not absolute. But it’s pretty close, so of course I don’t have to think too deeply about what he’ll say next because I know him so well.”
The Wexford books became a TV series, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, which ran in 48 episodes between 1987 and 2000, with the brilliant George Baker as Wexford.
4. Rendell used a pseudonym – Barbara Vine – for some of her novels. Barbara was her own second name, given because her Scandinavian relatives (she was half Swedish) found Ruth hard to pronounce. Although she said she always knew if a book was going to be a Rendell or a Vine, she admitted that she found it hard to define the difference:
“I think I’d say Vine was a bit more serious, a bit more searching, analytical perhaps, but I feel I don’t always really have to define this. I think people should decide for themselves. I’d like to get a really good analysis of the difference from somebody, and then perhaps I could write it down and keep it and tell everybody who keeps asking me.”
5. On 24 October 1997, Rendell was created a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She sat for the Labour Party in the House of Lords, and was in the habit of attending three or four times each week. She was deeply concerned about important social issues (she was vice-president of Shelter, the homelessness charity), and was responsible for introducing the bill that was later passed as the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003. Although she said in an interview that “I keep my writing very separate from my life”, she did write about some of the things that concerned her – Harm Done (1999) is partly set in a shelter for battered wives and deals with the release of a paedophile into the community, and Not in the Flesh (2007) includes the theme of female genital mutilation, for example.
Harriet is one of the Shiny Editors.