Sunday, 3 May 2015

Ruth Rendell, crime writer, dies aged 85

Ruth Rendell obituary
Crime novelist famed for her Inspector Wexford books who also wrote dark and chilling thrillers under the pen name Barbara Vine

 Stanley Reynolds

Ruth Rendell, Lady Rendell of Babergh, also known as Barbara Vine, who has died aged 85, was a literary phenomenon. From 1964, when her country copper, Reg Wexford, first stepped before the reading public in From Doon With Death, she wrote more than 50 crime novels and seven books of short stories. Many of them were adapted for television or made into feature films; the Wexford books in particular were an enormous success on TV, with the actor George Baker playing Wexford as a big, gruff, rural policeman, solving crime in the fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham.

But Rendell was never satisfied with producing the annual whodunnit. She demonstrated this when, rather than follow her first Wexford novel with more of the same, she daringly jumped away from the classic English mystery in her second book, To Fear a Painted Devil (1965), and gave readers a taste of the psychological thrillers to come.

The cliched view of Rendell is that she suddenly changed her style when, in the 1980s, she started writing as Barbara Vine, but the truth is that from the beginning, even in the Wexford tales, she concentrated more on character and psychology than old-fashioned police procedure. She wrote 24 Wexford books and produced an equal number of thrillers under the name Rendell. Her first novel as Barbara Vine was A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe award. The next year, a second Barbara Vine, A Fatal Inversion, won her the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger.

The big difference with the Barbara Vine stories was that in them she went inside the heads of her psychopathic killers and rapists. It was this that made them so dark and chilling, an uncomfortable read for fans of Wexford who were used to the protection of the country officer standing between them and an unsafe world. Because of this, Rendell’s fans fell into two rather warring camps, those who liked the Wexford stories and those who felt that Barbara Vine was a great “real” novelist breaking new ground. The books were all, however, bestsellers. There might also have been a third camp, those who loved her wonderful short stories. This was a dying, or dead, market in Britain, but Rendell was able to sell short stories in the US to publications such as the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Although Rendell did not like the title often bestowed on her – queen of crime – calling it snide and sexist, she did not go along with the many reviewers, among them AN Wilson and PD James, 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.”

A very private person, who could get prickly with interviewers, she nevertheless said that she was going to take an active part in politics when she was made a life peer in 1997. That year she had given £10,000 to the Labour election campaign. In the Lords, Rendell supported the bill to legalise assisted suicide: “The way I’m going it won’t be long, but all my aunts lived into their 90s.”.

Daughter of Ebba (nee Krause) and Arthur Grasemann, she was born in South Woodford, north-east London. Her mother, who had been born in Sweden and lived in Denmark until she was 12, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Ruth, an only child, was brought up in part by a housekeeper to whom, she said, she was much closer than she was to her mother. Her father she described as “endlessly patient, endlessly loving, and endlessly kind”. She put a lot of him into Wexford.

She went to Loughton high school, in Essex, and was, she said, very unhappy. But she began to find herself when she left school and became a journalist. She worked on the Chigwell Times and by the age of 22 was a top reporter. Trouble came her way when she wrote a story about an old deserted house and invented a ghost; the owner of the house threatened to sue. Shortly afterwards she skipped the annual meeting of a local tennis club and wrote the story up from the chairman’s pre-prepared speech of which she had a copy. After her piece appeared in print she learned that the chairman had dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of delivering it. She quit before she was sacked.

Aged 20 she had married Don Rendell, a reporter whom she met when they were both covering an inquest. He became a financial journalist on the Daily Mail and for 10 years Rendell was a wife and mother. She described these as happy years but during that time she went through a long apprenticeship, writing six novels, all of which were rejected. When her seventh, From Doon With Death, was accepted by the small publishing house of John Long, she received £75 for it. “No interviews then,” she said, “nor for the next two novels.”

Later she was frequently interviewed, though she was never a willing subject. Asked once too often what she would have been if she hadn’t become a novelist, she said a country and western singer. It came as a shock when, during an interview oon Norwegian TV, she was handed a microphone and asked to sing. Asked on BBC Radio 4 about how she wrote her short stories, she said: “Oh they just come to me.” She described what drove her to write by saying: “I like to sit at a desk and type.”

Rendell claimed that, when writing her novels, she never did any research but “simply made things up”. Later on, she hired a researcher, but the great detail she gave her stories was the result, she said, of going on long walks, especially in London. She became an expert on parks in the capital.

Her hobby was changing houses; she moved 18 times. For several years, she lived in a pink 16th-century manor house set in 11 acres in Suffolk, before returning to London. Her only digression from a rather set, humdrum routine came when in 1975 she divorced her husband and then two years later remarried him. Asked why, she said that after they separated, she found she couldn’t live without him, because he was the sort of man with whom you could go on a 200-mile car trip and never have to say a word.

The Mystery Writers of America gave her three Edgars and the British Crimewriters’ Association awarded her several Golden and Silver Daggers. In 1991 she received the Cartier Diamond award for outstanding contribution to the crime genre. She showed no sign of slowing up: No Man’s Nightingale, published in 2013, was a classic Wexford; and in 2014 she created a new detective, Colin Quell, for The Girl Next Door.

Rendell was very generous and gave a large amount of money away. She was vice-president of the housing charity Shelter and raised money for Little Hearts Matter, which helps children with heart disease. She said she knew what it was like to have no cash, adding: “I don’t think it’s good for people to be born into money and not know what it is never to have it.”

Her husband died in 1999. She is survived by her son, Simon.

• Ruth Barbara Rendell, Lady Rendell of Babergh, writer, born 17 February 1930; died 2 May 2015

 Ruth Rendell, crime writer, dies aged 85
Creator of Inspector Wexford, who also wrote as Barbara Vine, was admitted to hospital after serious stroke in January

Alison Flood and Vanessa Thorpe

Ruth Rendell, one of Britain’s best-loved authors, who delighted fans for decades with her dark, intricately plotted crime novels, has died at the age of 85, her publisher has announced.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh, the creator of Inspector Wexford and author of more than 60 novels, had been admitted to hospital after a serious stroke in January and died in London on Saturday morning. The statement from her publisher, Hutchinson, said her family had requested privacy.

The crime writer Val McDermid voiced the sorrow of many Rendell fans when she heard the news.

“Ruth Rendell was unique. No one can equal her range or her accomplishment; no one has earned more respect from her fellow practitioners,” McDermid said.

 “The broad church that is current British crime writing owes much to a writer who over a 50-year career consistently demonstrated that the genre can continually reinvent itself, moving in new directions, assuming new concerns and exploring new ways of telling stories. And doing it all in a smoothly satisfying prose style.”

Baroness Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House UK, of which Hutchinson is an imprint, said: “Ruth was much admired by the whole publishing industry for her brilliant body of work. An insightful and elegant observer of society, many of her award-winning thrillers and psychological murder mysteries highlighted the causes she cared so deeply about.

“She was a great writer, a campaigner for social justice, a proud mother and grandmother, a generous and loyal friend and probably the best read person I have ever met. Her many close friends in publishing and the House of Lords will greatly miss her wonderful company and her truly unique contribution to our lives.”

Susan Sandon, the managing director of Cornerstone, which runs Hutchinson, also paid tribute to Rendell’s life and work: “Ruth was beloved as an author and a friend – to me, and to so many of us. Her writing and her company enriched all our lives. Erudite, wise and endlessly entertaining, she will be so greatly missed.”

Rendell’s novels included the Inspector Wexford crime series and the psychological thrillers she wrote as Barbara Vine. Her debut, From Doon with Death, introduced the world to Wexford in 1964.

 “He sort of is me, although not entirely,” the author told the Observer in 2013 when the inspector made his 24th outing, in No Man’s Nightingale. “Wexford holds my views pretty well on most things, so I find putting him on the page fairly easy.”

Rendell landed her £75 publishing deal with Hutchinson after around a decade of life as a mother and housewife; she had been a journalist on the Chigwell Times, but resigned after it emerged that her report of a local tennis club dinner had been written without attending the event, meaning she missed the death of the after-dinner speaker during his speech.

Her novels, from A Judgement in Stone, which opens with the line: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read and write”, to last year’s The Girl Next Door, which sees the bones of two severed hands discovered in a box, cover topics from racism to domestic violence.

The books have, her friend Jeanette Winterson has said, been “a major force in lifting crime writing out of airport genre fiction and into both cutting-edge and mainstream literature”.

Ian Rankin said he had viewed Rendell as “probably the greatest living crime writer” and added that “if crime fiction is currently in rude good health, its practitioners striving to better the craft and keep it fresh, vibrant and relevant, this is in no small part thanks to Ruth Rendell”.

Rendell’s death closely follows that of fellow crime writer PD James, her good friend and political opponent in the House of Lords.

A tribute by the broadcaster and writer Mark Lawson this weekend called them “the George Eliot and Jane Austen of the homicidal novel: different minds and style but equal talent”. He credited them with saving British detective fiction from the disdain of serious literary critics.

The crime writer Simon Brett said Rendell’s output was astonishing and was amazed by her her transition into Vine.

“I cannot think of another example of an author who has moved up a gear so dramatically,” he said on Saturday. “I had always enjoyed her books but when the first Vine book, A Dark Adapted Eye, came out, it was such a change of style.

“I last saw her when she was giving a speech last year and she was mesmerising. Although it was always quite spooky, because she was so affable in person and yet you knew she could summon up dark places in her mind.”

Rendell told the Guardian two years ago: “Suspense is my thing. I think I am able to make people want to keep turning pages.

“I just wait until I’ve got a character and I think, why would anybody do that, what is it in their background, what is it in their lives makes them do it?”

Rendell won prizes including the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for “sustained excellence in crime writing”, and, as a Labour life peer, helped pass a law preventing girls being sent abroad for female genital mutilation.

She was regularly in the Lords, and recently completed another novel for her publisher, Hutchinson, telling the Guardian in 2013 that she had no plans to retire.

“I couldn’t do that. It’s what I do and I love doing it. It’s absolutely essential to my life. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t write,” she said. “I’ll do it until I die, won’t I? If I can. You don’t know, but probably.”

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