Bestselling crime author Ruth Rendell dies aged 85
Her dark and powerful imagination shattered lazy thinking, writes Jake Kerridge
Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30
Bestselling crime writer Ruth Rendell has died aged 85, her publishers Penguin Random House said.
The prolific author produced 65 novels, with her 66th to be published later this year. It completes a body of work that, added to her brilliant short story collections and sundry other books, would suffice as the lifetime's output for three writers.
And it could be argued that Rendell was three writers. There was the author of traditional whodunits - blessed with the reassuring presence of DCI Reg Wexford.
Then there was the author of psychological chillers that produce in the reader the rare and exquisite state of being unable to bear the prospect of either continuing or stopping. And then there were the more leisurely novels, written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, which examine how long-lasting and widespread the effects of crime can be.
"Murder reaches out through a family, stamping transfers of the Mark of Cain on a dozen foreheads," as she put it in her masterly A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986).
Rereading her work recently, though, I have tended to see it as all of a piece.
The Wexford novels may be comparatively cosy, but they are full of little grenades designed to explode complacent thinking.
Consider Wexford explaining why he failed to solve the case sooner at the end of An Unkindness of Ravens (1985): "The mistake is ours when we deceive ourselves about parent-child relationships. When we keep up the belief that all parents love their children and want what's best for them."
In 1997 she was made a Labour peer, as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, and made it her business to assiduously attend the Lords every afternoon.
Her novels became more tendentious, tackling the political issues she campaigned about: domestic violence, racial prejudice, female genital mutilation. Her power stemmed from the imagination and yet in one sense her books read like documentary realism.
It has been said that you can find out more about everyday middle-class life over the past 50 years from Rendell's books than from any other author.
Although a notably friendly and generous woman, Rendell was found by journalists to be a reticent and self-contradicting interviewee when talking about the events in her own life that fed her work. I once asked her if she identified with the reformed serial killer Arthur Johnson in her 1976 masterpiece A Demon in My View, who keeps a mannequin in the cellar which he periodically strangles to sublimate his murderous urges. Did she sublimate any dark desires by acting them out on the page?
She laughed, said she had no dark desires and didn't write to exorcise anything. The source of the most astonishing imagination in modern British crime fiction remains a mystery.
No other genre but crime fiction would have suited her, but I suspect it's the inclusion of policemen and dead bodies in her novels that kept the best of them from their rightful places on the Booker Prize shortlist.
No matter. A huge worldwide public found its way to her unguided, and lapped up some of the most challenging, discomfiting, thrilling fiction of the past half century.