THE BOOKS OF RUTH RENDELL

Essay by Judy Harris

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PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS
ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME2001
BRIDESMAID, THE1989
CROCODILE BIRD, THE1993
DEMON IN MY VIEW, A1976
FACE OF TRESPASS, THE1974
GIRL NEXT DOOR, THE
2014
GOING WRONG1990
JUDGMENT IN STONE, A1977
KEYS TO THE STREET, THE1996
KILLING DOLL, THE1984
LAKE OF DARKNESS, THE1980
LIVE FLESH1986
MAKE DEATH LOVE ME1979
MASTER OF THE MOOR1982
ONE ACROSS, TWO DOWN1971
PORTOBELLO2008
ROTTWEILER, THE2003
SIGHT FOR SORE EYES, A1998
ST. ZITA SOCIETY, THE2012
TALKING TO STRANGE MEN1987
THIEF, THE2006
THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN2004
TIGERLILY'S ORCHIDS2010
TO FEAR A PAINTED DEVIL1965
TREE OF HANDS, THE1984
VANITY DIES HARD1965
VAULT, THE2011
WATER'S LOVELY, THE2006
CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD NOVELS
BABES IN THE WOOD2003
BEST MAN TO DIE, THE1969
DEATH NOTES1981
END IN TEARS2005
FROM DOON WITH DEATH1964
GUILTY THING SURPRISED, A1970
HARM DONE1999
KISSING THE GUNNER'S DAUGHTER1992
MONSTER IN THE BOX, THE2009
MURDER BEING ONCE DONE1972
NEW LEASE ON DEATH, A1967
NO MAN'S NIGHTINGALE2013
NO MORE DYING THEN1971
NOT IN THE FLESH2007
ROAD RAGE1997
SHAKE HANDS FOR EVER1975
SIMISOLA1995
SINS OF THE FATHERS
SLEEPING LIFE, A1978
SOME LIE AND SOME DIE1973
SPEAKER OF MANDARIN1983
UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS, AN1985
VEILED ONE, THE1988
WOLF TO THE SLAUGHTER1967
BARBARA VINE
ANNA'S BOOK1993
BIRTHDAY PRESENT, THE2008
BLOOD DOCTOR, THE2002
BRIMSTONE WEDDING1986
CHILD'S CHILD, THE2012
CHIMNEY SWEEPERS BOY, THE1998
DARK-ADAPTED EYE, A1986
FATAL INVERSION, A1987
GALLOWGLASS1990
GRASSHOPPER2000
HOUSE OF STAIRS, THE1989
KING SOLOMON'S CARPET1991
THE MINOTAUR2005
NO NIGHT IS TOO LONG1994
Click here, here and here for a synopsis of her books in chronological order, as well as other details.

Ruth Rendell is my favorite author and I've read everything she's written; I prefer her psychological thrillers to her Wexfords.  I got to meet her in person at three different book signings when she was in New York; one was a reading of THE CROCODILE BIRD and one was a couple of years earlier when she was in town to coincide with the annual Fifth Avenue Book Fair which takes place on a Sunday late in September.  Most recently I saw her at the 86th Street Barnes & Noble where she read the opening chapter to THE VAULT, her Wexford sequel to A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES.

I have seen some of the dramatizations of her work, and the only ones which really did justice were DEAD LUCKY which was a dramatization of THE LAKE OF DARKNESS; and  AN AFFAIR IN MIND (1988), which was a dramatization of THE FACE OF TRESPASS.  I did not like the film versions of GALLOWGLASS, A DEMON IN MY VIEW, A DARK ADAPTED EYE, TREE OF HANDS (which shows up on late night TV under the title INNOCENT VICTIM and stars Helen Shaver and Lauren Bacall and was recently made as a French film entitled BETTY FISHER AND OTHER STORIES),  HEARTSTONES or MASTER OF THE MOOR.  Other novels of Rendell which I have seen (and which were fine, but never as good as the books) include A FATAL INVERSION, THE BRIDESMAID, GOING WRONG, NO NIGHT IS TOO LONG, ROAD RAGE and TALKING TO STRANGE MEN (another favorite of mine).

I have seen and not liked two versions of A JUDGMENT IN STONE which have been made into films.  One was called THE HOUSEKEEPER (starring Rita Tushingham) and one was called LA CEREMONIE (starring Isabel Huppert).   I found both of these dramatizations not faithful to the book and more violent than the book.  Although they do contain many incidents from the book, and the two filmed versions are very similar to each other, they both completely miss the point (in my opinion) which is that this is a crime that would not have happened if the murderer were not illiterate.  This is only peripheral to the films, but integral to the book and brilliantly presented.

LIVE FLESH was made into a particularly unfaithful version, which retained only the central idea of a cop being shot and the criminal engaging in a love triangle with the cop's wife after the criminal gets out of prison.  The locale was changed to Madrid, losing the very Britishness that is so much an enjoyable part of Rendell's works, and the social phobia which afflicted the central character, so important in the book, was omitted in the film.

I recently (2012) discovered that ONE ACROSS, TWO DOWN was made into a 1976 film called DIARY OF THE DEAD starring Hector Elizondo, Austin Pendleton and Geraldine Fitzgerald, but I have not been able to track it down.

What appeals to me about Rendell's writing is the way she is able to convey sympathy and identification with her criminals by making you see the world through their eyes.  She does this with an accretion of detail which, at the beginning of some of the books, is sometimes tedious, but which eventually is very suspenseful, because you know something is going to happen, but you don't necessarily know when or (sometimes) to whom.  And it all unfolds before you and there is nothing you can do to warn the eventual victim.

I think the reason I prefer her psychological thrillers to her Wexfords is that, at its heart, her writing is not about detection, and so her continuing detective characters, Wexford and Burden, are a lot less interesting than her other characters which show up for only a single book.  The Wexfords are not really "police procedural" in the way that, for example, Ed McBain's 87th PRECINCTs are.  Instead her writing is about the events that push people over the edge to commit crimes, and which show that there but for the grace of God, go you or I.

Despite my enjoyment of her books, it is a surprise to me so many of them have been dramatized because her plots generally occur over a long time and her novels consist of conversations and interior dialogues which would be difficult if not impossible to convey visually; they would require narration, which is often awkward.  The miniseries version of GALLOWGLASS has quite a bit of narration and is not particularly enthralling compared to the book.

In addition, unlike most mystery novels, there are generally not a series of murders in Rendell's plots; and the thrust of the writing is almost never to figure out who the murderer is.  It is more about the inevitability of a tragedy occurring which is often set off by something very minor but which builds and builds until the "straw which breaks the camel's back".

My very favorite of her books is A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES, which unlike her previous ones seems to have great cinematic potential and cries out for a Hitchcockian director.  I also found NO NIGHT IS TOO LONG to be an absolute page turner.  SIGHT was made into a film in France in 2003, but I have not seen it.

Rendell's books are not easily synopsized and are challenging to read.  I am contacted from time to time by people who are doing reports on her for their homework, and who, basically, want me to falsify their homework for them, and I don't, so if you are such a student, please do not contact me.  I also have no biographical information about her; so try the library.

However, I will give you an idea to develop.  It seems to me in all Rendell's fiction, a common element is how lives are changed by very casual things, a decision, a coincidence, a chance meeting.  I believe all of Rendell's works are cautionary tales of how easy it is to ruin lives by doing something, or failing to do something, that in and of itself is of no great moment, but which sets you down a road from which there is no return.

If you are new to Ruth Rendell and want a suggestion of a book to start, my choice is LAKE OF DARKNESS.  Unlike many of her books which jump backwards and forwards in time, this was written in an almost completely linear fashion.  As with most of her novels, it cuts between two sets of characters who pass each other in the course of the book but don't actually meet up until the very last couple of pages when a death occurs.  It is atypical of Rendell in that there is more than one murder (although most of the murders are not important to the plot, but are to flesh out the character of the murderer), and one of the characters actually explains to another quite late in the book everything that has occurred so far - something which I don't think you'll find in any other of her books.  It's also a fast book to read compared to some of the others that seem to take longer to get rolling.

Works of Ruth Rendell which have been made into British TV movies or miniseries which I have not seen include:

I have seen two Wexfords, but so long ago, I can't remember much about them:
HAKE HANDS FOREVER (1988) and
NO CRYING HE MAKES (1988)

plus a few novels/short stories which have shown up on American TV under the umbrella title RUTH RENDELL MYSTERIES:
BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION (1997)
A CASE OF COINCIDENCE (1996)
SECRET HOUSE OF DEATH (1996)

In an interview in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (January 28, 2002), Ruth talks about ANNA'S BOOK:  It's called ASTA'S BOOK in England . . .  I called her Asta, but my publisher at Harmony, an imprint of Random House, told me there were various things that disquieted him about the name because it was around the time Barbara Bush wrote that book about a dog . . . [MILLIE'S BOOK]  And Asta was the dog in the old THIN MAN series.  So I thought, oh, God, if everyone thinks this is a dog's diary, that's horrible!  So that's why I changed the title.  The couple in that book is not really my grandparents, but the stories and lifestyle are authentic family details.

When asked about whether she has seen and enjoyed the TV adaptations based on her work, Ruth said that the Pedro Almodovar version of LIVE FLESH is very loosely based, but rather a good film.  The best one that the BBC did was A FATAL INVERSION.  The BBC is now doing NO NIGHT IS TOO LONG, and I have high hopes for it.

In an interview with Marianne MacDonald filed April 11, 2005, to publicize her latest Barbara Vine THE MINOTAUR, MacDonald writes :  Ruth Rendell had a terrible childhood and her adulthood has been tempestuous. But does this help to explain her twin obsessions, psychopaths and punctuality?

Rendell is 75, fit and upright, incredibly young-looking for her age, with a humor dry as a French chablis. Her hair is dyed ashy blonde; her eyes are unusually blue.

She says:  I do empathize with people who are driven by dreadful impulses. I think to be driven to want to kill must be such a terrible burden. I try, and I think I succeed, in making my readers feel pity for my psychopaths, because I do.

When she was asked nine years ago if she was writing from experience about psychopaths, a long pause ensued. I could hardly have reached my age and not suffered terrible unhappiness, distress and breakdown,' Rendell replied. We all go through it, unless we are extremely dull or insensitive. I didn't have the sort of breakdown that caused one to be hospitalized, but perhaps today it would.

We are in the downstairs living-room. The drawing-room window overlooks shark-like black houseboats on the canal; but the living-room backs on to the garden, where Rendell's ginger tom, Archie, is forced to endure a pitched battle with the tigerish bengal tom from next door. Black bookcases frame hundreds of volumes. The open-plan kitchen is cream, the coffee-table covered in books - volume three of Proust's In Search of Lost Time (the new translation), Philip Roth, Suetonius.

Rendell's phobias seems to be the legacy of her Swedish mother, Ebba, who fell ill with multiple sclerosis that went undiagnosed for years. She and Rendell's father, Arthur Grasemann (they were both school teachers based in east London), had a terrible marriage, continually shrieking at each other, giving each other the silent treatment and threatening to leave. A sensitive only child, Rendell seems to have found the atmosphere terrifying. In self-defense she created an inner voice that described what was going on as if it was a story, and so her writing began. But the fear remained, streaming out in her terror of being late, her need to keep busy, and her obsession with routine. She often says that she doesn't think any families are ever happy and that the world is an amoral place.

Ruth Rendell published her first novel, FROM DOON WITH DEATH, when she was 34. She had started writing after getting married at 20 and having a baby. She had been fired from her first job on the South Woodford local newspaper for writing up the tennis club's annual jamboree without mentioning that the chairman dropped dead while making his speech. The man she married was Don Rendell, her boss on the paper. They stayed together until he died of prostate cancer six years ago, bar a tumultuous period in her mid-forties where she left him, plunged into an affair and then went back and remarried him.

She gets up at 6am, lets the cats out, works out on her exercise machines, and writes from 8.30am to noon. Plots never dry up.

Something happens. I read something or somebody tells me something and the idea is started. I got the idea for THE MINOTAUR, for instance, from, thinking, "How would it be for a family who had one member with an illness they completely misdiagnosed and they blamed this person, and eventually it was discovered what it was? And then what happens, in what is fashionably called the dysfunctional family?

On October 5, 2005, Dinita Smith wrote in the NEW YORK TIMES:  In 1997 Rendell became Baroness Rendell of Babergh.  She writes in the mornings, then attends the House of Lords when it is in session.  She shows her work to only one person before sending it to her publisher, she said, a fellow Peer whom she will not name.  Her average is three books every two years.

For those interested in Kingsmarkham, here is a map, which claims that the setting was based on the West Sussex town of Midhurst, although Romsey in Hampshire was the site for the TV adaptations with George Baker.

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