Ruth Barbara Grasemann Rendell, aka Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE, (1930 -2015) is one of three women who have been called by some reviewers, the queen of crime (along with Agatha Christie and PD James). Ruth Rendell’s work transcended the crime fiction genre, and she proved an enormously successful and prolific writer. Her 50-plus crime novels and seven books of short stories have been translated into over 20 languages with an estimated sales as high as 60 million upon her death in 2015.
Born in South Woodford, Essex, northeast of London, her parents were both teachers. Her mother was Danish, and they spent Christmas and holidays in Scandinavia. Rendell learned Swedish and Danish.
When Ruth was twelve, doctors diagnosed her mother with multiple sclerosis. Ruth said a housekeeper was responsible for raising her.
After high school, Ruth Redell became a feature writer for the local Essex paper, The Chigwell Times. Rendell’s writing career did not get off to an auspicious start. By the age of 22, she had become its top reporter. Trouble came when she was to report on the annual local tennis club’s meeting. Instead of attending, she got a copy of the chairman’s speech beforehand and wrote her article. She couldn’t have predicted that, in the middle of his presentation, the chairman would suffer a heart attack and die.
Two years earlier, she had married Don Rendell, a fellow journalist who she met while covering an inquest. He became a financial journalist for the Daily Mail. For ten years, she was wife and mother to their son. She described these years as happy and a time she used to go through a long apprenticeship. She wrote six novels, all of which were rejected.
A small publishing house headed by John Long accepted her seventh novel, From Doon with Death. First published in 1964, she received £75 for it.
From Doon with Death introduced Ruth Rendell’s most popular character, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. She said she based the character upon herself. In a video statement for Simon & Schuster, she said, “I’m not creating a character as much as putting myself as a man on the page.”
The series are police procedurals set in a fictional town of Kingsmarkham in Sussex. Although considered traditional mysteries in the Golden Age style, Rendell tried to give them a more realistic, gritty feel. She concentrated more on character and psychology than focusing on just the police method of investigation. The series lasted for 24 books. As the cases increased, Wexford grew as well. Becoming, she observed, “a little less tough, a bit more tolerant.”
Her second book, To Fear a Painted Devil, published in 1965, strayed from the classic English mystery and gave readers a taste of her psychological thrillers. She went back and forth between writing the Wexford series and her stand-alones.
In the 1980s, she began writing thrillers under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) was her first book under her pseudonym, and it won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe award for Best First Novel.
The big difference with the Barbara Vine stories was that she went inside the psychology of psychopathic murderers and rapists. She explored such themes as romantic obsession, miscommunication, the impact of chance and coincidence, and the humanity of the criminal. They could be an uncomfortable read for those who were used to the British country officer bringing law and order to the village. Because of this, her readers fell into two camps. But for both camps, Rendell produced best sellers.
A Full Life
Fellow writer Val McDermid, a Scottish crime writer, told The Guardian upon Rendell’s death, “Talent played a part” in her success, but so did hard work. “A book flowed from her prolific pen approximately every nine months.” He also said, “No one can equal Ruth Rendell’s range or accomplishment.”
Readers tend to think writers hole themselves up in a room somewhere, tied to their pens or laptops. But Rendell lived a very full life. She moved 18 times, once living in a pink 16th-century manor house on 11 acres in Suffolk. In the 1996 Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the arts. She sat in the House of Lords for the Labour party.
Ruth Rendell published books over five decades, and she showed no sign of letting up. Her last Wexford book, No Man’s Nightingale, came out two years before her death, and it showed the Wexford after he had left the force helping as a consultant. In 2014, in The Girl Next Door, she created a new detective, Colin Quell.The prolific and transcending career of Ruth Rendell. @TimSuddeth, @OpeningaMystery, #mysteries, #GoldenAge writers Click To Tweet
The work of Ruth Rendell brought her much critical acclaim. She was awarded The Arts Council National Book Award, and The Sunday Times Literary Award. Four of her novels appeared on the British-based Crime Writers Association Poll (1990) of the best crime fiction novels ever written: two under the Rendell name and two written as Barbara Vine.
Her CWA Dagger wins have remained unmatched with four gold, one silver, and one diamond award. In 1991, she received the Cartier Diamond Award for outstanding contribution to the crime genre.
Rendell did not always agree with the reviewers, who called her a great novelist. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer,” she said. “I don’t mind because I do the very best that I can and thousands, millions of people enjoy my books.”
In the end, that says enough.