Wednesday 6 May 2015

Ruth Rendell R.I.P.

I learned of the sad news of the death of Ruth Rendell a few minutes before joining Katherine Hall Page for our "Malice Remembers" conversation about Patricia Moyes. We both felt that it was right to pay a brief tribute to Rendell before turning to Moyes, though breaking the news to audience members who were unaware of the loss of this great writer was bound to be a shock.

I've been a huge admirer of Ruth Rendell for many years, and I've often referred to her as my favourite living crime writer. I recall meeting Sophie Hannah for the first time when we were on a panel together in Runcorn, and an audience member asked me to name my favourite crime writers. I named Agatha Christie among those who were dead, and Rendell from among the living. Sophie - who had just published her first novel - exclaimed: "I was going to say that!" A shared enthusiasm is a good way to bond with a fellow author..

I'm sure that Rendell, along with her friend P.D. James, will be ranked as one of the great writers of popular fiction of the second half of the twentieth century. I enjoyed her Wexford novels, such as A Sleeping Life, but I enjoyed the non-Wexfords even more. A Judgement in Stone is a masterpiece, a crime genre cornerstone, and books like A Demon in My View and The Lake of Darkness almost equally brilliant. As if this wasn't enough, she proceeded to write stunning novels as Barbara Vine. My favourite is A Fatal Inversion, but the quality was invariably high. She wrote of particular,worlds - much bleaker and more restricted than, for instance, those of the great Reg Hill, who once gently teased her at an event I attended; Her books, unlike Reg's, seldom attempted humour, but she explored her favoured landscapes in utterly compelling fashion.

That wasn't all. She was an equally gifted short story writer, and when she tried her hand at a novella, the result, Heartstones, was characteristically excellent. For decades, she maintained an astonishingly high standard, despite being very productive. I cannot think of any prolific crime writer, with the possible exception of Reg himself, who has kept writing at anything like such a consistently high level for so long. Inevitably, as the twenty-first century dawned, she found it more difficult to avoid repeating herself and books such as The Saint Zita Society seemed to me to fall well short of her earlier, stellar achievements. Nevertheless, few crime novelists of the past fifty years have left such a wonderful legacy.

In my own writing, I like to pay occasional tributes to writers and other people whom I admire - Conan Doyle, Christie and so on. When I was planning The Arsenic Labyrinth, I conceived my version of a "Ruth Rendell type of sociopath" in the character of Guy. I loved writing about Guy, and I may return to that type of character one day. But of course, nobody could match Rendell..

One more thing. I never chatted to Ruth Rendell in person, but I corresponded with her, and on several occasions I invited her to contribute short stories to CWA anthologies that I was editing. Each and every time, she agreed readily, and authorised her agent to accept exactly the same - extremely modest - fee offered to other contributors. She did not attend CWA events, as far as I know, but she remained a member right to the end. I found her willingness to help truly admirable. and it's yet another reason why I respected her so much.



Ed Gorman said...

Very nice tribute. She was one of my three favorite crime writers. I had a friend in the House of Lords who knew her well and always said she was one of the finest people he'd ever known.

lyn said...

A lovely tribute to a great writer. She was one of my favourite writers & I especially enjoyed the Wexfords & the Barbara Vines. Her non-Wexfords were a little too dark for me.

Christine said...

A fine summing up, Martin. A Fatal Inversion is my favourite too. And then there is fact that she sat on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, a whole other side to her that meshes with her concern for social issues in the later Wexford novels

Martin Edwards said...

Ed, Lyn, and Christine, thanks. Ed, that's very interesting. I think some people found her slightly intimidating, but I strongly suspect that was simply a manifestation of her shyness; she was a very private person.

Deb said...

I had just picked up THE GIRL NEXT DOOR ( published last year) from the library when news of Rendell's death was announced. It's very interesting in that she addresses aging and what it means to live in a society where people in the seventies still have living parents. An excellent meditation on what makes a well-lived life and how we adjust to the diminished expectations of aging. A fitting coda to Rendell's undoubtedly well-lived life.

seana graham said...

Thank you for writing about Ruth Rendell. She was so prolific that I guess I assumed she would go on forever. Judgment in Stone was my introduction to her, thanks to my mom. I will have to seek out more of her later work.