Monday 12 October 2009

Profiling Ruth Rendell

ITV 3’s documentary about that marvellous writer Ruth Rendell was full of good things, including quite a bit from the lady herself. I agreed with Val McDermid’s observation that Rendell has a particular gift for delineating the psychology of ‘difference’. Many of her most memorable characters are rather strange individuals, but she has this knack of making them come alive. When I created Guy, the charming sociopath who features in The Arsenic Labyrinth, I was much influenced by Rendell, and I found the scenes featuring Guy enormously pleasurable to write.

The programme identified three types of Rendell novels – the Wexfords, the Rendell stand-alones and the books written under the name of Barbara Vine. There were interviews with George Baker, who played Wexford so well on the small screen (and who also adapted some of the books for television) and discussion about how Kingsmarkham (a fictional town based on Midhurst in Sussex) has evolved over the years. The Wexford stories highlighted were Simisola and Road Rage, and these books reflect Rendell’s more overt focus on social and political issues over the last fifteen years. Rendell evidently relishes her political life as a Labour peer, but I must say that the political elements in her more recent books don't appeal to mean as much as her brilliant insights into criminal psychology.

Rendell and P.D. James operate on opposite sides of the political divide, but their friendship shone through in their interviews, and struck me as absolutely genuine. They are both fine writers, who accord each other a very proper respect – and they are both shrewd enough to recognise that this may disappoint the media, who always prefer a story of conflict.

Another crime writer from the Conservative side, Gyles Brandreth, spoke warmly of Rendell’s work,although I was baffled by his dislike of her Barbara Vine books – the first few in particular are superb, and other interviewees, such as Andrew Taylor, were adamant that the Vine books include much of her very best work.

I was, though, disappointed that the programme didn’t pay any attention to the non-Wexford Rendells. Several of these are genuine masterpieces. And I still think that A Judgment in Stone is one of the most gripping novels of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read.


Kerrie said...

Did they ask her about retiring Wexford Martin? I have seen a couple of reviews of THE MONSTER IN THE BOX which have been disappointing.
I can't imagine Rendell without Wexford, but I guess he's had a good innings. She has been one of my favourite authors for some years.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'll look for the show online--hope they'll post it. I love Rendall *and* Barbara Vine.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Unknown said...

I, too, was very disappointed with the lack of non-Wexford work. Ruth Rendell has been my favourite writer for many years, and I much prefer her Rendell stand-alones and Barbara Vine books.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this profile, Martin. Rendell is one of my favorites and you're absolutely right; she has a gift for creating unusual characters that are still believable and real.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember being shocked by Simisola. That doesn't happen very often. Hope it comes to US tv.

vegetableduck said...

I think some of the earlier Wexfords are quite good detective novels that show Rendell was adept at Christie-like misdirection. I imagine she'll be remembered longest for the non-Wexford psychological thrillers, however. Her creative heart has seemed to be more into these for some time now.

Minnie said...

Another 'Barbara Vine' and Rendell non-Wexford series fan here. I also think the often-ignored 'Asta's Book' is fascinating, especially for anyone who's interested in clues about the writer herself (and her Danish connection).
I think RR in general is very good at 'state of society' themes, often via the off-beam personalities she so brilliantly characterises - they frequently serve to pinpoint or even personify wider social issues (especially those connected with increasing social atomisation) - too many examples to enumerate!

Dean James said...

I agree on Judgment in Stone. It's a seminal crime novel, I think. I also think the first few Barbara Vine novels are among her finest work. I like to thnk of her, in a way, as an anatomist, particularly in some of the Vine novels and non-Wexford Rendells. She has a way of completely dissecting a character, emotionally and mentally, that is fascinating.

Martin Edwards said...

I do appreciate all these comments.
Kerrie - she said she had no plans to retire or kill off Wexford.
Shirley, those are also my favourites.
Minnie, yes, Asta's Book is really good.

Philip Swan said...

The first Rendell I read was a Barbara Vine: A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, the first of many readings. It isn't unusual for me to read a Vine twice the first year it's out. I've read several of them 3-5 times each, but ASTA'S BOOK takes the cake - 13 full readings. As I always put it, Ruth Rendell is my favorite writer, Period - well, except for Barbara Vine, that is! Interesting that exactly one month to the day after your post I met Rendell in Denver - prior to that our paths had only crossed via e-mail and inscribed books. It was A Night To Remember, I can assure you. My preference for her books is 1) The Vines, 2) The Rendell Stand-Alones, and 3) The Wexfords. I'm glad she hasn't dispensed with Wexford - I read them and enjoy them because Ruth Rendell writes them, but if she stopped writing them, it wouldn't bother me all that much. All I can find on-line of the ITV Awards thing is a 2-1/2 minute teaser which included some nice glimpses of her. I loved Dame Helen Mirren's remark about being in a room with her four favorite heroines!