THE BOOKS OF RUTH RENDELL
Essay by Judy Harris
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PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME 2001 BRIDESMAID, THE 1989 CROCODILE BIRD, THE 1993 DARK CORNERS 2015 DEMON IN MY VIEW, A 1976 FACE OF TRESPASS, THE 1974 GIRL NEXT DOOR, THE 2014 GOING WRONG 1990 JUDGMENT IN STONE, A 1977 KEYS TO THE STREET, THE 1996 KILLING DOLL, THE 1984 LAKE OF DARKNESS, THE 1980 LIVE FLESH 1986 MAKE DEATH LOVE ME 1979 MASTER OF THE MOOR 1982 ONE ACROSS, TWO DOWN 1971 PORTOBELLO 2008 ROTTWEILER, THE 2003 SIGHT FOR SORE EYES, A 1998 ST. ZITA SOCIETY, THE 2012 TALKING TO STRANGE MEN 1987 THIEF, THE 2006 THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN 2004 TIGERLILY'S ORCHIDS 2010 TO FEAR A PAINTED DEVIL 1965 TREE OF HANDS, THE 1984 VANITY DIES HARD 1965 VAULT, THE 2011 WATER'S LOVELY, THE 2006
CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD NOVELS BABES IN THE WOOD 2003 BEST MAN TO DIE, THE 1969 DEATH NOTES 1981 END IN TEARS 2005 FROM DOON WITH DEATH 1964 GUILTY THING SURPRISED, A 1970 HARM DONE 1999 KISSING THE GUNNER'S DAUGHTER 1992 MONSTER IN THE BOX, THE 2009 MURDER BEING ONCE DONE 1972 NEW LEASE ON DEATH, A 1967 NO MAN'S NIGHTINGALE 2013 NO MORE DYING THEN 1971 NOT IN THE FLESH 2007 ROAD RAGE 1997 SHAKE HANDS FOR EVER 1975 SIMISOLA 1995 SINS OF THE FATHERS SLEEPING LIFE, A 1978 SOME LIE AND SOME DIE 1973 SPEAKER OF MANDARIN 1983 UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS, AN 1985 VEILED ONE, THE 1988 WOLF TO THE SLAUGHTER 1967Click here, here and here for a synopsis of her books in chronological order, as well as other details.
BARBARA VINE ANNA'S BOOK 1993 BIRTHDAY PRESENT, THE 2008 BLOOD DOCTOR, THE 2002 BRIMSTONE WEDDING 1986 CHILD'S CHILD, THE 2012 CHIMNEY SWEEPERS BOY, THE 1998 DARK-ADAPTED EYE, A 1986 FATAL INVERSION, A 1987 GALLOWGLASS 1990 GRASSHOPPER 2000 HOUSE OF STAIRS, THE 1989 KING SOLOMON'S CARPET 1991 THE MINOTAUR 2005 NO NIGHT IS TOO LONG 1994
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 NYC 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 when I tracked it down, it also was not faithful to the book and completely missed the suspense inherent in the original telling.
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; I tricked it down in 2015 and was very disappointed at the missed opportunities to make a great thriller. Currently PORTOBELLO is my new fave.
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 several Wexfords, but so long ago, I can't
remember much about them:
SHAKE 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
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.
An interesting DAILY MAIL article here
published shortly after Ruth died following a second stroke in
In early July 2015, BBC 4 Extra reran a 1994 interview of
Ruth Rendell by a clinical psychiatrist. She refused
to talk about why she remarried her husband Don (who was still
alive at the time of the interview), but she said many
interesting (to me) things that I identified with. That
she was afraid of people and it was an ordeal for her to attend
parties, even though she had attended hundreds of them.
Also that she had a compulsion to be punctual (which I have), and
often arrived in time to take a train earlier than the one she
set out to take. That there was a horrible anxiety
attached with the feeling of possibly being late, out of
proportion to the possibility. (I certainly have
that. That apart, the only things we seem to have in
common is that she was an only child of ill-suited parents, and
lived in her own head a lot.) She was 64 when she gave this
She had recurring dreams which were frightening to her. One in which she was walking through a strange house past lots of furniture and became more and more frightened, and one in which she (who was never ill and didn't take any medicines) had the feeling there was some medicine she should have taken and had to find to take immediately. I wonder if this was her subconscious suggesting she take some prophylactic blood thinners like aspirin to stave off strokes.