I was saddened to read last week that Ruth Rendell, author of more than 60 mysteries and psychological thrillers, passed away at the age of 85. She is absolutely one of my favorite authors ever. I began reading her standalone novels about 7 or 8 years ago, and began reading her Inspector Wexford series about 4 years ago. I’m still slowly making my way through all of her works, as I’m not one to read a series or a particular author back-to-back. (I like to draw out the pleasure, and there are so many books!) I haven’t even touched the ones she wrote under the name Barbara Vine. So, happily, I have many more encounters with Ms. Rendell’s works to look forward to.
What makes her unique among mystery writers, I think, is just how literate and intricately plotted her novels are. Sometimes you quickly know the “who dunnit” of the story, but what is more important is often the why part of the equation. Rendell excels at delving into the dark corners of the human mind, and at times she makes you almost sympathize with the people committing the crimes. In a 2005 NPR interview, she talked a bit about this.
Rendell was asked whether she was fascinated by crime. “Well, I don’t know that I am fascinated with crime,” she said. “I’m fascinated with people and their characters and their obsessions and what they do. And these things lead to crime, but I’m much more fascinated in their minds.”
Her standalone novels are a bit darker and more gruesome – though not sensational – than her Wexford books, in my opinion – at least the ones I’ve thus far read. Her Inspector Wexford novels are a delight. The first couple start off a little slow, but you quickly come to love the characters of Wexford, lover of literature and tenacious crime-solver, and his no-nonsense right hand man, Det. Inspector Mike Burden. It’s really interesting to follow the changes in British society from the early 1960’s, when the first books were written, to the present day – lots of trenchant social commentary sprinkled in. Her plots involve lots of red herrings and sometimes I admit to having to go back and re-read passages to fully understand what happened! But that only proves the point that she’s a smart writer.
Mysteries were among my first loves of the book world. I began with the Nate the Great and the Cam Jansen series, moved onto Nancy Drew, became enchanted by Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and devoured most of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series by the time I was a teenager. Mysteries are a comfort read for me, even if they get a little gruesome or disturbing. (Although I don’t want to read a mystery involving something awful happening to a child. Deal-breaker.) I love the challenge of trying (and most often failing) to solve the puzzle. I often use them as a palate cleanser after reading a particularly challenging novel. I suppose I’m on a bit of a crusade to get people to read Rendell’s work. Mysteries sometimes get a bad rap, as does any other genre that’s not “literature.” (Insert posh accent here.) I’m glad that the walls of genre seem to be crumbling lately. It’s a tired old argument, especially these days when it seems most people don’t even read one book in any given year. Good writing is good writing! Ruth Rendell is good writing, people. In another interview for The Guardian, she was asked how she’d like to be remembered. In her practical style, she answered,
I don’t really care. Nobody will go on being remembered for a very long time, unless you’re Shakespeare or Milton. I have no hope of being remembered at all.
I kind of love this. It’s true, and it’s depressing how short the life span of novels and authors are in the collective consciousness, really. But to me, her writing means a great deal. I can’t tell you how many hours of enjoyment I’ve gained by reading her.