‘Will I still be writ­ing in 10 years when I’m 93? I might be...’

At 83, Ruth Ren­dell is still pro­duc­ing a novel a year and is as re­luc­tant to re­tire as her long-time hero, for­mer Chief In­spec­tor Wex­ford, she tells Han­nah Stephen­son

Friday - - Leisure -

The hec­tic sched­ule of Baroness Ren­dell of the English dis­trict of Babergh – bet­ter known as best­selling crime writer Ruth Ren­dell – would leave nov­el­ists half her age strug­gling to keep up.

The 83-year-old rises at 6am and, af­ter break­fast and a work­out, writes for three hours be­fore at­tend­ing the House of Lords four af­ter­noons a week (she’s a life peer for the UK’s Labour Party), pur­su­ing char­ity work and cam­paign­ing against ill treat­ment of women.

She also man­ages a busy so­cial life, which in­cludes go­ing to the theatre, cin­ema and opera.

That’s on top of a strict fit­ness regime – she has Pi­lates classes once or twice a week and a Pi­lates ma­chine at home, uses her crosstrainer fre­quently and walks a lot. She’s given up high- and low-im­pact aer­o­bics, she con­fides, and eats fish but not meat. “I’m care­ful about keep­ing my­self fit and thin, or as thin as I can man­age,” she says.

The sprightly oc­to­ge­nar­ian, who brings out one book a year ei­ther un­der her own name or the pseu­do­nym Bar­bara Vine, says she has no plans to re­tire or slow down, as her hero, for­mer Chief In­spec­tor Regi­naldWex­ford (played by the late Ge­orge Baker of I, Claudius fame in the TV se­ries), has done.

Next year will mark the 50th an­niver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of her firstWex­ford novel, From Doon With Death. Her past three­Wex­ford books have seen him re­tired but still in the loop of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, as he tries not to in­ter­fere but of­fers help if asked.

Wex­ford isn’t tech-savvy in the lat­est book, pre­fer­ring to trust his gut instinct. “He’s not hi-tech, but then nor am I,” Ren­dell ad­mits, al­though she is much more au fait with tech­nol­ogy than her fic­tional de­tec­tive – she has three iPods, an iPhone and three com­put­ers, plus an­other one in the House of Lords.

An­other clas­sic

In her 24thWex­ford novel, No Man’s Nightingale, the re­tiredWex­ford is asked to help in­ves­ti­gate the mur­der of a fe­male vicar found stran­gled in the vicarage in the fic­tional Sus­sex town of Kings­markham.

The sus­pects, twists and red her­rings are clas­sic Ren­dell, but it’s also the ge­nial de­tec­tive’s re­la­tion­ship with his wife Dora that is such a joy to read, how they ex­ist in prac­ti­cal har­mony with­out any hint of slushi­ness, yet clearly in love.

“I didn’t want to have one of th­ese de­tec­tives who leave their wives and go and live in one room some­where and some­times they get back to­gether and some­times they don’t. I didn’t want to do that with­Wex­ford. I wanted him to have a long and happy mar­riage. I wanted it to grow.”

The fic­tional re­la­tion­ship is a far cry from that of Ren­dell’s par­ents. “They were just ex­tremely in­com­pat­i­ble, very dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple. They didn’t get on. I don’t think ei­ther of them knew what they were do­ing,” she says. “I think both of them thought that mar­riage was the be-all and end-all of ex­is­tence and that it was go­ing to be so ro­man­tic and dra­matic and won­der­ful and of course it wasn’t, it isn’t. They were bit­terly dis­ap­pointed.”

An only child, Ren­dell grew up in Es­sex but had an un­happy child­hood

be­cause of the fight­ing be­tween her par­ents, who were both teach­ers.

“To say the ar­gu­ments made my life a mis­ery would be very strong, but it wasn’t very happy at home.”

Ren­dell’s mar­riage to Don Ren­dell, who died in 1999, also ev­i­dently had its ups and downs. The cou­ple di­vorced in 1975 then re­united and re­mar­ried two years later. It’s an is­sue she won’t dis­cuss.

They met when she was a re­porter at the Chig­well Times and he was her boss for a short time. Their son, Si­mon, is a psy­chi­atric so­cial worker liv­ing in Colorado in the US, and she has two grown-up grand­chil­dren.

For now, writ­ing is Ren­dell’s pri­or­ity. In her lat­est book, the mur­dered vicar is a sin­gle woman of mixed race, which opens up all sorts of pos­si­bil­i­ties for prej­u­dices and racism – ideal ma­te­rial to cre­ate a string of sus­pects.

Ren­dell hasn’t known many fe­male vic­ars but just wanted the vic­tim to be un­usual, she re­flects.

“I’m in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of life and I’m al­ways open to change.”

This is clear from her work at the House of Lords, where she uses her in­flu­ence to cham­pion is­sues and the causes of peo­ple from all walks of life – from EU in­te­gra­tion to cli­mate change – and it’s clear that she feels pas­sion­ately about her po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion.

How­ever, she says she’s a bit fed up that the Lords is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly over­crowded as more and more peo­ple are granted peer­ages – an­other po­lit­i­cal is­sue. “At the mo­ment it’s ex­tremely crowded and when I go back in Oc­to­ber it will be worse. It’s get­ting to the point where you can’t sit down in the cham­ber if there’s any­thing peo­ple want to at­tend.”

Keep­ing it sim­ple

Nowa­days Ren­dell doesn’t write as many Bar­bara Vine books, which tend to be darker psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers with more com­plex sub­ject mat­ter.

She doesn’t read much crime fic­tion and has only one friend in the genre, PD James. “We are very good friends. We do a fundrais­ing event to­gether, where we go on stage and talk to each other for about 40 min­utes and then open it up to ques­tions. We never re­hearse it and it’s some­times quite funny.”

As for TV crime dra­mas, she prefers Morse and Lewis to The Killing and other Scan­di­na­vian dra­mas. “I’ve tried them but I don’t like them. They don’t do any­thing for me,” she says sim­ply.

She’s con­fi­dent Wex­ford will re­turn to the screen, but not be­fore the mem­o­ries of Ge­orge Baker have faded. “You have to get to that time when the ma­jor­ity of tele­vi­sion view­ers only vaguely re­mem­ber see­ing Ge­orge but would be quite pre­pared to see a new Wex­ford.

“I don’t think I’ll ever kill him off be­cause I have man­aged to find a way of mak­ing him there, of­fer­ing his ser­vices and ad­vice if it’s needed.”

Look­ing back, she never imag­ined he’d still be go­ing strong al­most half a cen­tury on.

“I don’t think much about the fu­ture, which is quite a use­ful gift,” she says. “Will I still be here writ­ing in 10 years’ time? I wouldn’t think so, but I might be – just about, cling­ing on by the skin of my teeth.”

And still us­ing that cross-trainer, no doubt.

Ruth Ren­dell’s Wex­ford takes on an ad­vi­sory role in No Man’s Nightingale

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