Crime writer who refashioned the whodunnit and whose Inspector Wexford mysteries became a television favourite
Baroness Rendell of Babergh, the novelist Ruth Rendell, who has died aged 85, was one of Britain’s best-selling celebrity crime writers.
She revitalised the mystery genre to reflect post-war social changes and wove into more than 60 books such contemporary issues as domestic violence, transvestism, paedophilia and sexual frustration. Her Inspector Wexford mysteries became an extremely popular television fixture in the 1990s.
Her work, mapping the manic and malevolent extremes of human behaviour, was distinguished by terse yet elegant prose and sharp psychological insights, as well as a talent to create deft and intricate plots and believable characters.
With her friend and fellow crime writer PD James — with whom she shared the accolade of Britain’s Queen of Crime (which she detested) — Ruth Rendell redefined the “whodunnit” genre, fashioning it into more of a “whydunnit”.
But unlike the conservative Lady James, Rendell was politically to the Left and professionally far more prolific; she completed more than 50 novels under her own name and 14 writing as Barbara Vine, as well as two novellas and more than a dozen collections of short stories.
She remodelled the traditional detective story to explore what she considered to be the complex social causes of crime. Her books were largely gore-free, focusing instead on the unsettling details of ordinary madness. Ruth Rendell’s characters often lived on the margins of society and sanity; a recurring theme was how they integrated into their communities and how society controlled the quiet threat they could pose.
Ruth Rendell represented the bridge between the golden age of crime fiction, the formulas of Agatha Christie and her heirs and successors, and a new, more urban style. Even so, some critics took her to task for a perceived failure to keep up with the times. For her own part she insisted that she always strove to give a picture of contemporary life. “I try to be very, very aware of all sorts of changes in society, because people do tend to write the same book set in the time when they first started to write.” She kept ahead of the curve by being a good eavesdropper, and by walking everywhere instead of travelling by car, “a very good way of seeing things and people and hearing what they say”.
A small, neat woman with dark, intense eyes and a faintly disquieting air, she seldom allowed her privacy to be violated and when, reluctantly, she gave book-plugging interviews she tended to be edgy and brusque. A staunch Labour supporter — “I am very much of the Left,” she insisted — she was active in CND in the 1980s before mellowing into a Christian socialist, although even her later novels betray a deep-rooted pessimism.
*** was an abiding theme in her work; she considered it one of the most interesting things in life “and it’s grotesque the way some writers shy away from it”. She invariably took a liberal line, and the victim in her very first book was gay.
Ruth Rendell herself was a lifelong feminist; her early novels treat of women trapped in oppressive domestic settings. “I think if you’re a woman, you are naturally a feminist,” she once explained. “Unless you’re hiding something.”
She was born Ruth Barbara Grasemann on February 17 1930 at South Woodford in suburban east London. Her parents were teachers, and she was their only child. The marriage was unhappy, and her Swedish mother fell ill with multiple sclerosis and died while Ruth was still very young. She was raised by the family housekeeper at Loughton in Essex, where she attended the County High School for Girls. Ruth often spent Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, and learned both Swedish and Danish. Her upbringing, she said, was coloured by a sense of being on the outside.
Leaving school at 18, she determined not to become a teacher. Her first job was as a reporter on the Chigwell Times, but she was sacked after covering the annual dinner of the local tennis club by writing it up in advance in order to meet a deadline; her report made it into the paper, but overlooked the fact that, on the night, the chairman had dropped dead in the middle of his after-dinner speech.
In 1950, when she was 20, she married Donald Rendell, a fellow reporter whom she met at an inquest; he later became a financial journalist on the Daily Mail. The couple were together for a quarter of a century until they divorced in 1975, only to remarry each other two years later. Having nursed her husband through his final illness, Ruth Rendell was badly affected by his death in 1999, but picked up her writing again, viewing her work as “a very separate world” from her personal trials.
Seized from a young age by a compulsion to make up stories, at 23 she began to experiment with different styles and genres. She completed at least six unpublished novels before the ingenious From Doon With Death (1964), her first published mystery featuring her enduring and popular yeoman detective (later Chief) Inspector Reginald Wexford, which was bought by the publisher John Long for £75. The Wexford books are traditional crime stories set in the fictional mid-Sussex town of Kingsmarkham, and if there was a certain sameness about them, more marked as Ruth Rendell’s interest in the orthodox detective yarn waned, she always sought to compensate by applying an unerringly astute eye and ear to the sights and sounds of life in middle England.
Indeed, Wexford himself — “born at the age of 52” as she readily admitted — is every inch the middling sort, old-fashioned and decent; in almost half a century striding through Ruth Rendell’s pages, her hero remained the eternal stalwart, clever, shrewd, engaged, always up-to-date. Ruth Rendell claimed that the character “has a bit of my father, a bit of me”. In Wexford, the crime novelist and critic Frances Fyfield noted, Rendell had created “a singular everyman. He regrets; he accepts.” In one of Wexford’s last cases, End in Tears (2005), he was old and tetchy but infinitely more tolerant.
In 1988, the Inspector Wexford series introduced Ruth Rendell’s work to a huge new audience of television viewers. The series starred George Baker in the title role and Louie Ramsay as his wife Dora.
Although her Wexford police procedurals — and the television spin-offs — represented her best-known work, Ruth Rendell herself preferred her second genre, a series of gruelling and violent psychological thrillers that explored crimes springing from some sexual or social obsession that was often rooted in childhood mistreatment or misfortune.
She admitted to having read Freud and Jung but not much criminology, and remarked that she often felt the imminence of personal disaster. “It is a neurotic state,” Ruth Rendell conceded. “I wish I didn’t have it. I have it.” Many of her characters have it too, and these neuroses splinter up in her books as a personality flaw leading to violence when subjected to emotional stress.
A Demon in My View (1976) and A Judgement in Stone (1977) are rated the best of her early stories about the psychology of killers. There were two less successful attempts, in A House of Stairs (1988) and Gallowglass (1990), but she found her form again in The Bridesmaid (1989), with its terrifying account of a doomed love affair. Other titles in this Rendell genre include The Killing Doll (1984), Live Flesh (1986) — which was filmed by Pedro Almodovar in 1997 — Talking to Strange Men (1987), Going Wrong (1990) and Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001).
In the mid-1980s, under her pseudonym Barbara Vine (her middle name and her great-grandmother’s maiden name), Rendell created a third and wholly individual strand of literary noir with the publication of A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Together with A Fatal Inversion (1987), they were hailed by the veteran crime buff Julian Symons as “among the most memorable and original crime stories of the [20th] century”, constructed “with a cunning Wilkie Collins might have envied and Dickens would have admired”.
Although these and other titles such as King Solomon’s Carpet (1991) and Asta’s Book (1993) cover the same territory as her psychological suspense novels, they develop further Rendell’s recurring themes of family misunderstandings and the side effects of secrets kept and crimes committed. “They are about ordinary people,” she explained, “who are pushed over the edge.” Her 24th and last Wexford mystery, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) was followed a year later by her final standalone novel, The Girl Next Door.
Ruth Rendell is three fine writers, Julian Symons declared, but the best of them is Barbara Vine. Other critics, however, suggested that as Vine, Rendell was more subtle, less black. “The Vine books are less violent,” she acknowledged, “and they lack the frightening qualities of the suspense books.”
An organised, businesslike writer, Ruth Rendell would arrive at the word-processor and her tidy desk at 8.30 each morning already knowing “pretty much” what she was going to say. On a good day, she would write 2,500 words, on a bad day 500: there were very few bad days. The technicalities of writing fascinated her. She had a great facility for the right choice of viewpoint, and could shunt her stories back and forth in time: flashbacks, what she called her “great leap backwards”, were her stock-in-trade.
While she considered Agatha Christie to have been a bad writer, Ruth Rendell recognised that for many of Christie’s readers, her detective stories offered an escape from reality. She was at a loss to understand why some people found her own books depressing: “Bad things happen to good people,” she once explained. “Who wouldn’t want to write like PG Wodehouse? To be so light and blithe would be wonderful. But unfortunately, it’s not how things are, or what I’m like.”
She found it hard to relax, but when she did she read modern and Victorian novelists, although she was never herself a keen reader of crime. Indeed, she readily admitted to being not much interested in crime or criminals, and was perfectly content to confirm that she had never actually met one. She never researched. “Oh no,” she said, “I make it all up.”
A millionairess several times over, Rendell was remarkably generous with her phenomenal success. She donated about £100,000 a year to charities including the Royal National Institute for the Blind, but never bought flags in the street or gave to people at the door.
She divided her time between a London home in Little Venice and, at one time, a pink 16th-century cottage near Polstead in Suffolk, where she did most of her writing.
Ruth Rendell received many awards for her books, including a clutch of Silver, Gold and Diamond Daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association and three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America. She was appointed CBE in 1996 and created a Labour life peer the following year, choosing polar bears — her favourite animals — for her coat of arms. In 2008 she admitted to having had a relationship with a unnamed politician in widowhood, but declined to elaborate.
She leaves a son, Simon, a psychiatric social worker who lives in Colorado.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh, born February 17 1930, died May 2 2015
from The Telegraph 2 May 2015