I have only ever written one fan letter and it wasn’t to my ultimate pop star of my youth (and I’m not telling you who that was, either). My one and only letter was to a writer who I greatly admired and still do to this day. And the geek that I am – I still have the reply sent to me from Ruth Rendell folded carefully in the envelope it arrived in.
The big pull for me at this year’s Harrogate Crime Festival is the rare appearance of Ruth Rendell. Anyone who knows me has heard me extol the wonders of Ruth Rendell who for me, when I first discovered her, sent shivers down my spine. Not simply because of her plots, but because her stories were so mesmerising, her characters were never simply ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – they were mercurial, not always pleasant and all her novels are threaded through with the most sly sense of humour. Who can ever forget the chicken soup in ‘The Keys to the Street’?
I ‘discovered’ Ruth Rendell in 1984. It was a natural progression from Christie and Marsh to look for something more current. At that time Rendell was in vogue. The first of her novels I read was ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’ which I devoured in two days (very good for me as I am a slow…ish reader). The next week the Simmons clan set off for Devon. It was there in a tiny newsagent I found a paperback copy of ‘The Killing Doll’ which I bought straight away. And that, as they say in history books, was that… ‘The Killing Doll’ transported me to a different universe from those I had read before when murders happened in huge, snow-bound mansions and even a knife in the back appeared to be the polite thing to do! Here, in ‘Rendell-land’ things were that bit vicious, that bit more macabre with a slightly skewed view of the world through the eyes of someone teetering on the very edge of sanity. This book gave to me the possibility that there was a much more ‘carnal’ kind of murder than the ones my Nan had given me from her collection. Reading Rendell led me to writers, not all current but edgier – Chandler, Cain, Highsmith and my ultimate favourite, Margaret Millar.
I have always flitted between the police procedural, whether it be from the 80’s (Sheila Radley and Elizabeth Lemarchand) or psychological (Celia Fremlin and Millar) I have always been the most excited to get the latest Ruth Rendell in my hot hands. Even my Mum would say when she saw I had the new Ruth Rendell that ‘she wouldn’t see me for a couple of days’. All my family were on the lookout and once I got a phone call from my sister at work to say she had got me ‘The Veiled One’ as she knew I’d buy it as soon as I laid eyes on a copy! She did the same for me with ‘The Bridesmaid’.
During the 80’s and 90’s it was as if Rendell herself was sending me a yearly gift with annual releases of ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’, ‘The Tree of Hands’, the aforementioned ‘The Veiled One’, ‘Live Flesh’ and the early nineties release and my favourite Wexford, ‘Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter’.
And in the 80’s what else does this marvellous writer go and do? She only goes and invents another persona to release another strand of crime novels, these ones sharper, more detailed, defined, in-depth and personal. With the Barbara Vine novels you can feel the intimacy of the situation, the suffocating atmosphere as tensions behind closed doors and drawn curtains reach fever pitch. I was blown away by ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ which won the Edgar for Best Novel but Rendell as Vine simply kept raising and raising that bar. ‘A Fatal Inversion’ is simply sublime as Rendell, channelling Vine with masterful skill shows how past transgressions echo down the years to inflict damage and justice in the present. I read this on another family holiday in Marbella. While everyone was going off sight-seeing I stayed by the pool, my family unable to wrest this book from my grasp. Rendell’s books have affected me so much that I actually remember when and where I read them! I recall closing ‘A Fatal Inversion’ dumbstruck. I had SO been wrong-footed! And as with the brilliant ‘The House of Stairs’ and later, my favourite Vine ‘Asta’s Book’ they all transported me to different times and places and delivered a sucker punch that would resonate through my mind and imagination for weeks, even years!
As if that isn’t enough – Rendell’s work is now the study of Barbara Fass Leavy who has written a book about Rendell’s novels and the similarities of her novels to ancient Greek mythology as well as the theories of Freud and Jung. If this isn’t high praise indeed to have your novels theorised with such intensity then I don’t know what is.
For me Rendell has certainly changed the landscape of crime fiction. Along with P.D. James who we can certainly class as Rendell’s partner in crime, these ladies have defined crime fiction and shown that it no longer has to be the poor cousin, that crime fiction can be a sterling piece of literature as well as a spell-binding read. They showed us that you don’t have to sacrifice character for plot; that both can go hand in hand and when they do the results are mind-blowing.
I have always preferred Rendell’s psychological novels to the Wexford’s. I prefer the fact that there is nothing to hold Rendell back when you read one of her standalones. Rendell’s later output has given us ‘The Minotaur’ again a wonderfully claustrophobic tale set deep within the English countryside, ‘The Strawberry Tree’, a perfect novella of lost innocence and acceptance and my favourite, ‘A Sight For Sore Eyes’ which enraptured me with the enigmatic and brutal Terry Brex.
Ruth Rendell was quoted on a collection of M.R. James stories, ‘There are some writers one wishes one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, M.R. James is one of those.’
For me, I would say exactly the same of Ruth Rendell.
Ruth Rendell will be appearing as a Special Guest at the 2013 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Tickets available now.
Friday 19th July 2013
SPECIAL GUEST EVENT: Ruth Rendell interviewed by Jeanette Winterson
9am | Tickets £13
Box Office: 01423 562303
Book Online: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime
When it comes to persuading us to reveal our innermost secrets, nobody does it better than our friends. That’s why we persuaded Jeanette Winterson OBE to open the festival in conversation with Baroness Rendell of Babergh CBE. What do two of our leading writers talk about when they’re together? As The Guardian recently observed, ‘Winterson is a mesmerising presence who seems to speak in perfect sentences and construct perfect images as constantly and naturally as the rest of us breathe’. Who better, then, to explore the rich writings of Rendell, creator of Chief Inspector Wexford and, as Barbara Vine, sending more shivers up our spines than seems fair? Rendell is credited for transforming the whodunit into the whydunit, changing the form of the classic police procedural with astute psychological insights and concerns with the nuances of society, re-shaping the genre with her humanity. Don’t miss the chance to see two fierce talents who have blazed their own paths on one electrifying stage.