Rendell, Ruth (Barbara)

views updated May 29 2018

RENDELL, Ruth (Barbara)

Pseudonym: Barbara Vine. Nationality: British. Born: Ruth Barbara Grasemann, London, 17 February 1930. Education: Loughton High School, Essex. Family: Married Donald Rendell in 1950 (divorced 1975); remarried in 1977; one son. Career: Reporter and sub-editor, Express and Independent newspapers, West Essex, 1948-52. Awards: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, for short story, 1975, 1984; Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger award, 1984, and Gold Dagger award, 1976, 1986, 1987; Arts Council National Book award, 1981; Arts Council bursary, 1981; Popular Culture Association award, 1983; Sunday Times award for Literary Excellence, 1990. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF. Address: Nussteads, Polstead, Colchester, Essex CO6 5DN, England.



From Doon with Death. London, Hutchinson, 1964; New York, Doubleday, 1965.

To Fear a Painted Devil. London, Long, and New York, Doubleday, 1965.

Vanity Dies Hard. London, Long, 1965; New York, Beagle, 1970; asIn Sickness and in Health, New York, Doubleday, 1966.

A New Lease of Death. London, Long, and New York, Doubleday, 1967; as Sins of the Fathers, New York, Ballantine, 1970.

Wolf to the Slaughter. London, Long, 1967; New York, Doubleday, 1968.

The Secret House of Death. London, Long, 1968; New York, Doubleday, 1969.

The Best Man to Die. London, Long, 1969; New York, Doubleday, 1970.

A Guilty Thing Surprised. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1970.

No More Dying Then. London, Hutchinson, 1971; New York, Doubleday, 1972.

One Across, Two Down. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1971.

Murder Being Once Done. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1972.

Some Lie and Some Die. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1973.

The Face of Trespass. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Shake Hands for Ever. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1975.

A Demon in My View. London, Hutchinson, 1976; New York, Doubleday, 1977.

A Judgement in Stone. London, Hutchinson, 1977; New York, Doubleday, 1978.

A Sleeping Life. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1978.

Make Death Love Me. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1979.

The Lake of Darkness. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Doubleday, 1980.

Put On by Cunning. London, Hutchinson, 1981; as Death Notes, NewYork, Pantheon, 1981.

Master of the Moor. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Pantheon, 1982.

The Speaker of Mandarin. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Pantheon, 1983.

The Killing Doll. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Pantheon, 1984.

The Tree of Hands. London, Hutchinson, 1984; New York, Pantheon, 1985.

An Unkindness of Ravens. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Pantheon, 1985.

Live Flesh. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Pantheon, 1986.

A Warning to the Curious. London, Hutchinson, 1987.

Heartstones. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Harper, 1987.

Talking to Strange Men. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Harper, 1987.

Wexford: An Omnibus. London, Hutchinson, 1988.

The Veiled One. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Pantheon, 1988.

The Bridesmaid. London, Hutchinson, and New York, MysteriousPress, 1989.

The Fourth Wexford Omnibus. London, Hutchinson, 1990.

Going Wrong. London, Hutchinson, and New York, MysteriousPress, 1990.

The Fifth Wexford Omnibus. London, Hutchinson, 1991.

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Mysterious Press, 1992.

The Crocodile Bird. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Crown, 1993.

Inspector Wexford. London, Cresset, 1993.

Simisola. London, Hutchinson, 1994.

The Keys to the Street. New York, Crown Publishers, 1996.

Road Rage. New York, Crown Publishers, 1997.

A Sight for Sore Eyes. New York, Crown, 1999.

Harm Done. New York, Crown, 1999.

Novels as Barbara Vine

The Dark-Adapted Eye. London, Viking, and New York, Bantam, 1986.

A Fatal Inversion. London, Viking, and New York, Bantam, 1987.

The House of Stairs. London, Viking, and New York, Crown, 1989.

Gallowglass. London, Viking, and New York, Crown, 1990.

King Solomon's Carpet. London, Viking, 1991.

Asta's Book. London, Viking, 1993.

No Night Is Too Long. London, Viking, 1994.

Short Stories

The Fallen Curtain and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, and NewYork, Doubleday, 1976.

Means of Evil and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1979; NewYork, Doubleday, 1980.

The Fever Tree and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, and NewYork, Pantheon, 1982.

The New Girl Friend. London, Hutchinson, 1985; New York, Pantheon, 1986.

Collected Short Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1987; New York, Pantheon, 1988.

The Strawberry Tree (with Flesh and Grass by Helen Simpson).London, Pandora Press, 1990.

The Copper Peacock and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, andNew York, Mysterious Press, 1991.

Blood Lines: Long and Short Stories. New York, Crown Publishers, 1996.


Ruth Rendell's Suffolk, photographs by Paul Bowden. London, Muller, 1989.

Editor, A Warning to the Curious: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James. London, Century Hutchinson, 1987; Boston, Godine, 1989.

Editor, with Colin Ward, Undermining the Central Line. London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.


Critical Studies:

From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell by Susan Rowland, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2000.

* * *

In the thirty-plus years that have followed the publication of her debut "Wexford" novel From Doon with Death in 1964, Ruth Rendell has been writing fiction of a uniquely impressive kind. Incredibly prolific, with some fifty titles to her name, her work rate is more than matched by the high quality of her writing, and her novels and stories have secured her numerous awards while winning favor with readers and critics alike. Most of her books fall under the general heading of murder mystery or detective fiction, but to pigeon-hole her as a "genre" writer is to do both author and potential readers a disservice. In a real sense Rendell has created her own category, operating with great success on three fictional frontsthe "Inspector Wexford" detective series, the stand-alone novels produced under her own name and those written as Barbara Vine. Any one of these formidable streams of fiction would be enough to build her a lasting reputation; taken together, they put her in a class of her own.

Rendell's work is distinguished by strong characterization, assured plotting, compelling atmosphere and deep psychological insights. Her knowledgeof trees and plants and their properties, of Mozart opera, of literature and especially of human psychologystaggers with its range, while at the same time avoiding intrusiveness. The Face of Trespass for most of its length reads like a mainstream novel, Graham Lanceton's despised woodland retreat and curtailed love affair evoked with supreme skill, and one is almost one-third of the way through before the possibility of murder rears its head. Whatever else this may be, it certainly isn't "genre fiction." Similar qualities distinguish A Demon in My View and A Judgement in Stone, where the author examines the thoughts and actions of two psychopathic killers. Rendell's sardonic humor is present throughout her writing, and vulgar or tasteless characters often suffer severely at her hands, but in A Demon in My View a more sensitive treatment is afforded to the strangler Arthur Johnson. Through his recollections she fits together the terrible blend of nature and nurture that has made him what he is, the vicious murderer hidden by a façade of neat dress and prim, austere behavior. A black humor surfaces with the arrival of fellow lodger and namesake Anthony Johnson, a student of psychology who scans texts on psychopathic personalities while a real-life killer walks the floor above him. Unlike Anthony Johnson, Rendell defines Arthur in human terms, and while one feels horror at his murderous acts it is possible to have a grudging sympathy for a man doomed to destruction by his own compulsive urges. Kindred personalities appear in several later novels, a murderous father and son "tradition" established in The Master of the Moor, while in A Sight for Sore Eyes a lethal partnership is formed by two individuals damaged in childhood. In A Judgement in Stone Eunice Parchman, starved of love as a child and cut off from the rest of the world by her inability to read and write, takes center stage. Eunice is harder to identify with, her evident lack of feeling defying any understanding of her as a person, but both she and her crazed ally Joan Smith are brought to fearful life on the page.

The series of novels and stories featuring Chief Inspector Wexford have proved enormously popular, and have been successfully screened on U.K. television with George Baker in the starring role. More conventionally "detective fiction" than her other works, their quality and individuality resists easy pigeon-holing. Like all her writing they are notable for superb plotlines, excellent atmosphere and memorable characters, not least Wexford and his "Watson" figure Inspector Mike Burden. The pair are marvelous foils for each other, the large, sometimes irascible Wexford whose painstaking deductions are allied to intuitive hunches striking sparks from his decent but stiff, by-the-book subordinate. This rapport enables their author to show Burden expounding one mistaken theory while babysitting his young son, and the unforgettable scene in "Means of Evil" where the straitlaced inspector cooks and serves Wexford shaggy-cap mushrooms and whisky in a vain attempt to solve a poisoning case. Once again Rendell impresses by her humanity, the ability to present her detectives and their families as people in their own right. The reader grieves with Burden over the death of his wife and shares his joy in a happy second marriage. When Wexford's wife Dora is kidnapped during a protest over an environmentally-damaging bypass in Road Rage, or his daughter Sylvia enters a refuge for battered wives in Harm Done, their trauma and that of their loved ones involves the reader with them. While the Wexford novels may not inhabit the deeper darkness that pervades Rendell's other writings, they nevertheless reflect the increasingly grim nature of modern society. Such topics as aggressive feminism (An Unkindness of Ravens ), drugs, mass murder, and the blight of AIDs (Kissing the Gunner's Daughter ), pedophilia, and lynch law (Harm Done ) and the vulnerable lives of immigrant workers (Simisola ) are brought into the weave of her novels and given thoughtful consideration without preaching or disturbing the movement of the plot. Here, as elsewhere in her work, she examines the formative experiences of her criminals, the often harmful effects of upbringing and chance encounters that lead to violence and murder.

Away from the Wexford canon, one is made aware of a potent, oppressive atmosphere of darkness and doom in which Rendell's characters find themselves trapped without hope of rescue. This atmosphere, evident in A Demon in My View, is equally apparent in the recent A Sight for Sore Eyes. Here Rendell explores through the warped mind of murderer Teddy Brex the poisonous results of parental love withheld. Denied true affection like Arthur and Eunice before him, Teddy shuns the world's ugliness to form a lethal alliance with his damaged soul-mate Francine, herself orphaned by murder. The horrors that follow are achieved with supreme skill, suspense and tension heightened to the final terrifying climax. As Barbara Vine, Rendell studies the effect of chance and circumstance on what we would regard as normal lives, the reaction of characters to sudden stresses and discoveries that lead to obsession and violence. In A Fatal Inversion the weak, easy-going Adam Verne-Smith attempts to set up a commune at the country house he has inherited in the summer of 1976, but his efforts come to grief when the runaway Zosie breaks into the charmed circle. Rendell studies the impact of the attractive, disturbed Zosie on the group, the plot moving with ever-rising tension to a brutal culmination. The aftermath, where years later the survivors are forced to confront past events, shows her at her most subtle and accomplished. In No Night is Too Long the study of three characters caught in a destructive triangular relationship is equaled by the author's description of the bleak Alaskan landscape. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy begins with the death of a respected author, whose daughter decides to write her own memoir of him only to discover that her father invented his past and was not the person he claimed to be. A powerful, disturbing narrative that uncovers those dark secrets so familiar to Rendell's readers, it shows the author at the height of her powers and set to continue her well-deserved success into the 21st century.

Geoff Sadler

Ruth Rendell

views updated May 21 2018

Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell (born 1930) was one of the world's most skillful and popular writers of mysteries and suspense thrillers.

Ruth Grasemann was born on February 17, 1930, in London, England, and was educated at Laughton High School in Essex. She worked as a newspaper reporter and sub-editor in West Essex from 1948 to 1952. In 1950 she married Donald Rendell, whom she later divorced, then remarried in 1977. They had one son.

Rendell was variously described as the "new Agatha Christie," the "new First Lady of Mystery," and the "British Simenon." While she was hailed primarily for her creation of character, she was also praised for her inventive plots, her keen social observation and incisive social criticism, her evocative settings, and her startling and often grim endings. But what especially raised her writing above the level of much detective fiction was her masterly control of elements of style (figurative language, dialogue, and irony) more often associated with "serious" fiction.

A prolific writer with consistently high standards, Rendell completed 27 novels and three short story collections. These works fall into two separate sub-genres of crime fiction. The first is the straightforward British police procedural, set in Kingsmarkham, which features Inspector Wexford as the central figure. The second is the individual psychological suspense thriller, with no detective and with no recurring characters. As noted by Francis Wyndham, Rendell excels equally in both forms: "Ruth Rendell's remarkable talent has been able to accommodate the rigid rule of the reassuring mystery story (where a superficial logic conceals a basic fantasy) as well as the wider range of the disturbing psychological thriller (where an appearance of nightmare overlays a scrupulous realism)."

The Kingsmarkham Series

It was in her first novel, From Doon with Death (1964), that Rendell introduced her central character, Detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford of Kingsmarkham, a particularly murder-prone village in Sussex. In this and the 14 Wexford novels that followed the reader is given a realistic portrayal of an intelligent and admirable human being. Wexford is a great reader with a ready supply of literary quotations. Frequently these quotes are thematically or symbolically pertinent to the plot, and sometimes a quotation fragment serves as the book's title.

A civilized man with decent values, Inspector Wexford is unusually tolerant and compassionate. His success in case-solving is often based on his ability to see in people emotions and motivations that other detectives would overlook. In Some Lie and Some Die (1973), a novel centered around a rock music festival, it is Wexford's understanding of young people and his acceptance of their values which are instrumental to his solution of the case.

After his first appearance in the series at the age of 52, Wexford continued to grow, coping with domestic problems, conflicts with superiors, and personal illness. He is a vulnerable and thereby appealing character: a detective who transcends his crime-solving function.

To add texture and density to the series, Rendell created a "company of players" who were featured from novel to novel. Accounts of these characters (Wexford's family members, friends, and associates) are more than entertaining narrative digressions. They act as foils or provide frames for characters involved in the crimes, and they contribute to the development of the plot. For example, in the story "Inspector Wexford on Holiday," Dora, his supportive and sympathetic wife, plays an essential role in uncovering the clue which solves the mystery. In A Sleeping Life (1978), his daughter Sylvia's personal crisis serves as a catalyst for an examination of sexuality and the women's movement, both pertinent to the crime at hand. Wexford's loving relationship with his actress daughter Sheila offsets and highlights the selfish and unhealthy relationship of the Fanshawes, the key characters in The Best Man To Die (1969).

An important character in the series is Detective Inspector Michael Burden, Wexford's aide and friend. Though 20 years younger than Wexford, he is older in temperament. Rigid, prudish, and generally conservative at the outset, Burden matures and becomes more charitable as a consequence of his association with Wexford. An important stage in his growth takes place in No More Dying Then (1971), in which Burden's personal tragedy, the death of his wife, is central to the plot, and later, in Put on by Cunning (1981), there are signs that Burden may even have become a cultural match for Wexford.

Rendell's portrayal of the ongoing friendship between the two men creates a continuity in the series. In sharp contrast to the sick fantasies and perverse behavior they, as policemen, must deal with, their own psyches are normal, their view of life and humanity realistic, and their relationship with each other symbiotic and healthy.

The Suspense Thrillers

Rendell once stated that the creation of character was her primary interest, and it is characterization that invests the Wexford series with extraordinary richness and depth. Her fascination with character is even more apparent in the non-series books, the suspense thrillers.

Here she specialized in examining the inner guilt and darkness of her characters, whether they were drably commonplace or alarmingly aberrant. In fact, Rendell achieved suspense precisely by combining the more traditional elements of crime fiction with her rare gift for psychologically astute character study. In her muted, understated style, she leads the reader into uneasy identification with a compulsive strangler (A Demon in My View, 1976), a failed writer (The Face of Trespass, 1974), an illiterate housekeeper (A Judgement in Stone, 1977), and a soulbartering teenager (The Killing Doll, 1984). The reader experiences the desperate alienation of these characters and is absorbed into the excitement of spotting and tracking the victims all the way to the murderous conclusions.

In 1986 two more novels were published—Live Flesh, a psychological suspense story in which the main character is a rapist and murderer, and A Dark-Adapted Eye, written under the pen name of Barbara Vine, which deals with intimations of various crimes within a conventional family. Two more "Barbara Vine" novels were published in 1987—A Fatal Inversion and Talking to Strange Men.

Rendell's mastery of crime fiction was widely recognized and honored. She received many awards, including the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allen Poe Award for short story and the Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger Award. Her works have been translated into 14 languages. More than a million copies have been printed in English. Rendell continues to write mysteries from her home in Suffolk, England.

Further Reading

To date there are no biographical studies of Ruth Rendell. Reviews and critical articles abound; among the most helpful are Jane S. Bakerman's chapter in 10 Women of Mystery (1981), edited by Earl F. Bargainnier, and an "Interview with Ruth Rendell," by Diana Cooper-Clark in the Spring 1981 edition of the Armchair Detective.

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