Dis­ci­pline and or­der key to Ren­dell’s suc­cess

Ac­ci­den­tal death and mad­ness core of lat­est novel

Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - EL­IZ­A­BETH GRICE

Some time ago, Ruth Ren­dell de­scribed her­self as “an old lady who lives alone with two cats,” a state­ment nearly as ab­surd as say­ing that Alan Ay­ck­bourn is a bald­ing man who lives in Scar­bor­ough. Now she is an even older lady with one cat. But where is the ev­i­dence?

At 82, she looks about 59 and is still writ­ing a crime novel a year, as well as walk­ing three kilo­me­tres to the House of Lords ev­ery af­ter­noon. Her cat is nowhere to be seen. Archie, the il­licit off­spring of a prize-win­ning Per­sian and a preda­tory gin­ger tom, has de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

“He’s beau­ti­ful and nice but he doesn’t want to meet you,” Ren­dell says. “I’m sorry about that. I feel it’s a bit rude.” No of­fence taken. I’m not sure I could sub­mit to the cat’s psy­cho­me­t­ric ex­am­i­na­tion as well as the scru­tiny of his mis­tress.

For Baroness Ren­dell of Babergh is never off guard, not for a sec­ond. It is her busi­ness to ob­serve and her habit not to re­lax.

Dis­ci­pline and or­der are deeply in­grained. You can see it in the sym­me­try of box hedges and a mon­key puz­zle tree in her front gar­den; in her trim fig­ure, ta­pered black trousers and sharply cut hair. No sur­prise, then, that her day starts be­fore 6 a.m., with an ascetic break­fast and vig­or­ous work­out.

“I am very fit and I take great care to re­main that way. I have sev­eral (ex­er­cise) ma­chines in the house.”

For three hours, if there are no ir­ri­tat­ing in­ter­rup­tions from peo­ple want­ing to mend things or de­liver by Ruth Ren­dell (Dou­ble­day Canada, 288 pages, $22.95)

is out Aug. 28. things, she writes, al­ways know­ing what she is go­ing to say when she sits down — and al­ways ob­ses­sively stor­ing the day’s words on a com­puter mem­ory stick which she car­ries in her hand­bag. “I love mem­ory sticks. They seem to me to be magic.”

When Ren­dell be­came a Labour peer 15 years ago, she vowed to put in the hours. It takes her 40 min­utes to walk half­way to West­min­ster from her im­pos­ing home in Lit­tle Venice — trav­el­ling by one of 15 dif­fer­ent routes — and then she catches the Tube. Walk­ing frees her mind for plot­ting. Some­times she writes as Ruth Ren­dell and some­times as Bar­bara Vine — more than 60 nov­els in all, which have sold mil­lions and made her very rich. It is alarm­ing to think what her out­put might have been if she had not be­come a life peer.

Sev­eral of her books have been made into films — by Pe­dro Almod­ovar, Claude Chabrol and Claude Miller. And the tele­vi­sion adaptations (with Ge­orge Baker as Chief In­spec­tor Wex­ford) have brought her a huge au­di­ence.

“You don’t knock tele­vi­sion,” she says, “even if you don’t al­ways like what they make of your work. It makes all the dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing an also-ran writer and very fa­mous.”

The down­side of fame, she finds, is that peo­ple are con­stantly mak­ing stupid as­sump­tions and ut­ter­ances.

“They seem to think that be­cause you write books about killings and death you do it your­self. A lot of these peo­ple have never read any of my books, of course. They as­sume you are writ­ing a blood and thun­der shocker ev­ery time. Oth­ers say very nice things. Just: ‘I love your books’ will do. I think it says some­thing that I have never had an ob­scene let­ter. A young man once at­tempted one but it was so to­tally il­lit­er­ate and hope­less that it made me laugh.”

Her new book, The Saint Zita So­ci­ety, is about ac­ci­den­tal death and patho­log­i­cal mad­ness be­hind the stuc­coed fa­cades of Pim­lico. As usual, the prose is plain and strong, the tone amoral. She scrapes at the bizarre so­cial stra­tum of Lon­don with an arche­ol­o­gist’s trowel, al­ways sift­ing for mo­ti­va­tion.

This win­ter, there will be an­other psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller un­der her Bar­bara Vine pseu­do­nym. Chief In­spec­tor Wex­ford is be­ing pen­sioned off. If she had any idea, back in 1964 when she pub­lished her first book, From Doon with Death, that he would be so pop­u­lar, she says she would have made him about 18, be­cause he is now un­fea­si­bly old. Last year’s book, The Vault, was the first to fea­ture him in re­tire­ment.

“Per­haps I can keep him go­ing for a bit longer,” she muses. “Peo­ple al­ways ask. I won’t kill him. He will just fade out. Co­nan Doyle killed Sher­lock Holmes and had to bring him back. Var­i­ous un­kind crit­ics said he was never the same again. I think it’s a warn­ing.”

In­ter­est­ingly, Wex­ford was “of no im­por­tance” to her in her first murder mys­tery.

“I had to have an in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer so I just picked one from my read­ing of de­tec­tive fic­tion. In sub­se­quent books he be­came a more lib­eral, more lit­er­ate, more un­der­stand­ing, more tol­er­ant, more en­dear­ing per­son, and that has worked be­cause peo­ple love him. Ridicu­lous as it sounds, one woman asked me if I could kill his wife so that she could marry him.”

The de­tec­tive was mod­elled on her own fa­ther, a teacher.

“But he is also very much me. He has all my feel­ings and prin­ci­ples and be­liefs and at­ti­tudes to life.” Ren­dell was the only child of an ill-judged mar­riage.

“My par­ents were not hor­ri­ble to me. They were just hor­ri­ble to each other. You notice that the par­ents of your friends show fond­ness for each other. My par­ents never did that. There was noth­ing. I was not un­wanted, but in some de­gree one would use me against the other.”

She was brought up on the Lon­don fringe of Es­sex. Af­ter high school, she joined the Chig­well Times as a fea­ture writer but re­signed af­ter com­mit­ting jour­nal­ism’s car­di­nal sin — she re­ported on the lo­cal tennis club’s an­nual din­ner with­out at­tend­ing it, thus miss­ing the death of the af­ter-din­ner speaker in mid-flow. She met her hus­band, Don Ren­dell (who, for a while, was her boss on the pa­per), at this time.

They mar­ried when she was 20 and had a son, Si­mon, now a psy­chi­atric so­cial worker, who mar­ried an Amer­i­can and lives in Colorado with their two sons, aged 20 and 18. The Ren­dells di­vorced in 1975, but re­mar­ried four years later and were hap­pily to­gether un­til his death in 1999.

Her nat­u­ral op­ti­mism is tem­pered by re­al­ism. Bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple. Jus­tice does not al­ways pre­vail. Hu­man­ity has a way of mess­ing up. In per­son, she is warm and dryly amus­ing. It is a pity Archie is not around to cor­rob­o­rate this. We shall just have to wait for her next book to con­firm the softer side she keeps so well con­cealed. It is about her cat.

Oli Scarff/afp-getty Im­age

Ruth Rendell, hold­ing a life mask in 2009 of com­poser Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del in the room where he died 253 years ago, has a new book out later this month. An­other novel, due out this win­ter, is un­der her Bar­bara Vine pseu­do­nym.

The Saint Zita So­ci­ety

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