For crime fiction fans it is a sad day. Ruth Rendell passed on at the beginning of May aged 85. Unique among British crime writers her influence and respect from fellow writers was unbounded. Those that followed her Facebook page will know that she was still writing up until recently. That would make her fifty plus years in the business, with a new book almost every year she was the most productive crime writer in recent memory.
In the early 90s we asked Julian Symons for his opinion on which writers we should approach for inclusion in our series of leather bound signed limited editions. He was forthright in answering you have to do Ruth Rendell. Reading his appreciation in the Scorpion Press edition of Asta’s Book, a novel based on her grandmother’s diaries published in 1993, he was dazzled by her work, especially the Barbara Vine books which he called “the jewels in the crown”. An historian of the genre he could not resist comparing the steady pacing of novels such A Fatal Inversion with those of Wilkie Collins.
When I came to publish Rendell a second time I asked Val McDermid for an appreciation. She was candid to admit that the first Rendell, From Doon to Death (1963) was one of the few crime novels that got her started. For Val and many of her fans it was the combination of writing skills and the handling of difficult social issues that drew you to her work. The characters too were riveting, taken from all walks of life, but those who were disillusioned, out of the ordinary or had other ideas often found space in a Rendell story.
Rumpole creator Sir John Mortimer was another who lovingly contributed an appreciation to one of Ruth’s highlights Harm Done (1999). Mortimer makes some admirable points: he notes Ruth’s ability to enter the criminal mind and convince the reader that the story is authentic; he knew that she liked to walk around the byways of London, “her wandering lit by a Gothic imagination” and she liked to speculate on what was going on away from prying eyes.
Her famous detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford was of course a walker himself. He walked miles around the Kingmarkham countryside until he feared that the woods and trees would make way for development.
The words of a poem early on in Road Rage about the encroachment of modern development summarize the passing too of this great writer:
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books, it will linger on
In galleries*; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
* for galleries read libraries.
Not forgetting her vast library output of novels that will be read for many years to come; four Ruth Rendell novels were published by Scorpion Press during the 1990s and she had a short story in the Detective Club collection The Man Who…