Book Review by Heidi Simmons
Hard to imagine a world without mysteries, psychological thrillers and crime novels. It’s a beloved genre and a literary staple. For many, “Who Done Its” are the foray into the world of reading or, for others, the only stories worth reading. With over 80 published works, British author Ruth Rendell was a master of her craft.
Among Rendell’s most well-known novels are the Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford books. He is a beloved patriarchal character who searches his community not only for the bad guys, but also for an understanding of why humans can be so deadly and dangerous.
Why humans do evil is Wexford’s obsession. It secretly torments him. He believes his gruffness and excess weight protects him. Yet deep down he fears there is no explanation and he is vulnerable to bad things like everybody else.
So Wexford tries to be a regular guy. He is never jaded or cynical. He can be strong and compassionate. He uses his common sense and intelligence to solve crimes while being a devoted husband and father. Set in the fictional world of Sussex Kingsmarkham, there are 24 books in the Wexford series.
Beyond English village crime, Rendell wrote more than 40 stand-alone novels under her name and the pseudonym Barbara Vine. A departure from the Wexford stories, these novels feature a greater, more violent world of sociopaths and psychologically anguished characters without the buffer of a beloved detective.
These books leave the detailed world of police procedure and the trusted Wexford and move toward the dark side of human behavior and disturbing violence. A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first book published under Barbara Vine won the Edgar Allan Poe award. Her awards are numerous both as author Rendell and Vine. The stand-alone novels are especially fascinating because they incorporate the great British mystery style, yet are in the modern world with all its harsh realities.
I only started reading Rendell when I realized there was more than the Wexford series. She won me over with her short stories. Intelligent prose with provocative psychological insight into human behavior, Rendell’s writing is surprising, clever and captivating.
Rendell has several collections of short stories and has penned three non-fiction works. Married and with a child, she wrote six books prior to her novel From Doon with Death, which sold for 74 British pounds in 1964. Thereafter she wrote a book or two almost every year.
There is a famous story of how she became a novelist. Out of high school, Rendell worked as a journalist. Assigned to cover a local event, Rendell decided she would write the story without attending based on the prepared speech, which the speaker supplied in advance.
Rendell turned in her story and the paper went to print. Unfortunately, the speaker dropped dead in the middle of his presentation. Generating big news in the small town, Rendell quit before she could be fired. Good thing being a novelist was indeed her calling.
Ahead of her time, Rendell incorporated gay rights, environmentalism, pedophilia and racism into her stories. She believed in women’s rights and was a strong advocate for the poor. Rendell was appointed to the House of Lords in 1997 and was a major contributor to the British Labor Party. While in office, she was influential in writing stronger laws against female genital mutilation.
Fellow Brit and mystery writer Phyllis Dorothy James, commonly known as P.D. James, died in November last year at the age of 94. The two were friends. What is in that British tea? Although these great women authors will be missed, their work will live on.
The Girl Next Door (Scribner, 288 pages) came out last fall and her final (?) Dark Corners (Scribner) will be released in December 2015. I look forward to reading these books. I will know doubt appreciate and treasure her way with words and the tormented and twisted lives she so adroitly portrays. Rendell was 85. Rest In Peace.