by Sharon Tucker
“Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Ruth Rendell
On May 2, 2015, Ruth Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, died at the age of 85, leaving behind a legacy of more than 60 best-selling novels. She had been a Labor Party member of the House of Lords, and sponsor to various charities for housing, children with heart disease, assisted suicide, and the rights of African women.
During and after WWII, the rules for writing British detective fiction came under revision. The world that gave rise to Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey had long ceased to exist, done in by two World Wars, and many other global conflicts—not to mention the erosion of privilege and class distinctions in Great Britain. Since I remember reading that Rendell disliked the works of Agatha Christie, I could not help but think the worlds that produced each them were so different, that it’s no wonder Rendell was impatient with novels that lovingly detailed a more gentle, ordered time. Christie’s world was basically sound—the problems Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple faced came from individuals who defied or tried to destroy the peace, calm, and order of the society she knew. Rendell, on the other hand, has been quoted as finding the world a bleak and unpleasant place. I have always assumed that her detective, Wexford (first encountered in From Doon with Death), was the principle of order in her Wexford novels, and that in a desolate world, it is only good individuals who bring about any semblance of order.
Rendell took a different tack in her novels from that of her Golden Age predecessors. Their mysteries revolved around solving puzzles and employing eccentric amateur detectives; they were witty in a donnish sort of way, and lighthearted in their approach to things criminal. Rendell chose instead to address the ills and inequities of society. In his May 2, 2015 New York Times article, David Stout pointed out that she included in her novels the problems caused by the influx of immigrants in Britain, domestic violence, racism, and the destruction of the environment—to name but a few of her themes. The novels she wrote as Barbara Vine explore the even darker psychological terrain of long-hidden family secrets, sibling rivalry, schizophrenia, unhealthy friendship, kidnapping, and the isolation of immigrants.
Fortunately, we have yet to hear the last of Ruth Rendell. Her last novel, Dark Corners will be published by Scribner in October later this year. Posthumous publication of a novel is hardly an unknown phenomenon, but in Rendell’s case it strikes a poignantly melancholy note.
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