Certain people, it sometimes seems, will always be there. Never in your life will there be a time when they do not live, do not exist. They will just always be. For me, Ruth Rendell, a brilliant British mystery writer, was one of those people. So, I was devastated to learn she died May 2 at age 85 after suffering a stroke in January.
Circa 1994, maybe 1993, an acquaintance, apropos of nothing, gave me a paperback copy of her ’93 novel The Crocodile Bird. I’d never heard of her, but it looked interesting, and I gave it a read. It was amazing … amazing in that special kind of way that really gets inside your head and plants the seed of obsession with its creator. I began to gobble them up and was dazzled by her ability to get inside the heads of messed up people. As many have said before, a Rendell novel isn’t simply a whodunit, it’s a whydunit — an examination of how a particular person became sufficiently unhinged to kill. And she had a way of making us see a hint of ourselves in those damaged individuals. This, combined with her deadpan wit and laser-sharp literary (but not stuffy) prose, gradually made her my favorite fiction writer, and it gave her the reputation of elevating the mystery genre.
Rendell, as devotees know, came in three flavors — the Inspector Wexford mysteries (in the U.K., these were the subject of a popular and long-running TV series), the standalone novels of psychological suspense, and the pseudonymous Barbara Vine novels. My favorites were the standalone novels of psychological suspense, with A Sight for Sore Eyes, 13 Steps Down and Adam and Eve and Pinch Me being outstanding examples from the later years. With a few, like 13 Steps Down, she even slipped in an effectively chilly hint of horror. When it comes to the Vines, my favorites — No Night Is too Long and The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy — are not the ones usually named.
Among my treasured possessions are a first-edition copy of her first novel, From Doon with Death (1964, The Crime Club), snagged from the local library discards (a bonus of getting to know some of the staff), and a couple of signed copies of other novels.
I could have three wishes, one of them would be tea with Baroness
Rendell of Babergh. We share things in common, such as working as
journalists and a certain world view. I would give anything to hear her war stories.
I can take some solace in knowing that I haven’t yet read at least half of her stunning output of more than 70 books, if you count the Vines and the short story collections, but there is no real comfort to be found in losing an idol.
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13 Steps Down
The Water's Lovely
Make Death Love Me