Discipline and order key to Rendell’s success
Accidental death and madness core of latest novel
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.
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