It’s a sign that you’ve encountered a significant book that will stay with you if you can recall the physical experience of reading it. I recall sitting beneath the gargoyles – they set the tone – in the grounds of Sydney University in March 1993 when I read One Across, Two Down.
Of all Ruth Rendell’s books published at that time – she was in mid-career – I chose that book because of the crossword theme. I loved it, and went on instantly to read a Wexford mystery, Some Lie and Some Die (1973) and the first Barbara Vine, A Dark-adapted Eye (1986).
Here was everything I wanted in a novel. Atmosphere. A coolly detached ironic style. Empathy for misfits and the lonely. And plots that kept twisting and darkening. John Mortimer wrote that reading Rendell at her best was like stepping on a trundling country bus only to find it turn into a rollercoaster. He was dead right.
Rendell, who died in May last year, was a crime writer who produced over 60 novels across 50 years, so her body count was high. I wasn’t interested in how her victims were despatched, but nor was she. It’s no surprise that when she compiled her ‘anthology of the murderous mind’ she called it The Reason Why.
Some Rendell fans have a strict allegiance to the Wexford police procedurals and others only read the smouldering Vines. I gorged on them all. I read and read until I was up to date and then, from the next new book onwards, I made sure buying the new novel on publication – right up until last year’s book, Dark Corners, which was her final book, which has just been released in paperback.
I used to go and hear her speak whenever I could. I don’t feel I knew her at all, but from reading her books, I knew better than to seek that kind of intimacy. I loved seeing her in action in one of her two-handers with P. D. James – their bonhomie added a welcome sparkle to a discussion of obsession and murder.
Speaking of obsession … we fans are a dedicated bunch. I was part of a Guardian book group a few years ago, led by John Mullan, when The Keys to the Street was discussed. He observed: ‘The machinery of her plotting was clearly what most pleased the readers who were present, and who were able to discuss it with daunting exactitude. (A seminar room of students who have been up late swatting Middlemarch is nothing to a room full of Ruth Rendell afficiandos.)’
She was as admired by other writers as she was by fans. For many, she liberated the genre from the constraints that typically applied to classic British crime fiction. (Although she respected those who thrived within them, like her friend P. D. James.) She pushed the crime novel into literary spheres, winning the Sunday Times award for literary excellence and almost, apparently, a Booker longlisting.
By then, the distinction between Rendell and Vine had blurred, anyway. A non-series book A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998) spawned a sequel with Wexford in it (The Vault). The Girl Next Door (2014), a stand-alone, moved back and forth in time as only the Vines had done previously.
This unpredictability added to the anticipation of each new release, quite apart from any sales targets her publisher might have set. (The title along set us thinking: what on earth would Piranha to Scurfy be about?) I like to think Rendell enjoyed challenging her readers’ expectations because she had learned that we trusted her – which we did.
This year, A Sight for Sore Eyes was reissued for its 20th anniversary and A Dark-adapted Eye for its 30th. Plus we have that final paperback: a shortish book, but satisfying. I’m so pleased to have read it and to know that I’ll reread it now there are no new books to come. Now I can start from the beginning again …
Are there writers to whom you have such devotion that you’ve read everything, written them letters, joined long queues to meet them? What happened when you met them?
Here is a link to an article about the ‘discovery’ of the manuscript of Ruth Rendell’s final book by her editor, Selina Walker.
Here’s a short video attached to a news story about her death.