Saturday 2 May 2015
I woke up this morning to a distant view of dark hills and grey skies and thought inevitably about the opening stanza of WH Auden’s elegy to WB Yeats:
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Ruth Rendell was deservedly the most decorated of British crime writers. Among her many distinctions were a clutch of Daggers (four gold, one silver and the diamond for a lifetime of achievement) and two Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America who also gave her their Grandmaster Award. She was also garlanded with the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence.
None of that happened by accident or luck. Talent played its part but so too did hard graft. A book flowed from her prolific pen approximately every nine months. Her Stakhanovite work rate as a writer and as a working peer made most of us feel like dilettantes. And her reach always exceeded her grasp. Years ago, starstruck and young in my career, I said to her: “I suppose when you’ve written as many books as you have, it gets easier.”
She looked at me with a steely twinkle and said rather sternly: “No. It gets harder.” I didn’t understand that then but 20 years on, I get it.
Ruth was unique. No one can equal her range or her accomplishment; no one has earned more respect from her fellow practitioners. The broad church that is current British crime writing owes much to a writer who over a 50-year career consistently demonstrated that the genre can continually reinvent itself, moving in new directions, assuming new concerns and exploring new ways of telling stories. And doing it all in a smoothly satisfying prose style.
Along with her contemporaries PD James and Reginald Hill, Ruth transformed what had become a staid and formulaic genre into something that offered scope for a different kind of crime novel. In their separate ways they turned it into a prism for examining the world around them with a critical eye. Their work kicked a door open for subsequent generations of crime writers to storm through and their popularity among readers gave others the confidence to follow in their footsteps, secure in the knowledge that an audience existed for crime fiction that wasn’t pulp.
To lose all three of them in the space of two short years is hard to bear. All those books unwritten, unshared. Because if they’d had more time, there would have been more. All three of them were writing right up to the end. Some writers run out of steam. None of them did.
I first encountered Ruth’s work in the early 70s, when I picked up a copy of her debut novel, From Doon With Death, in the second-hand bookshop in Oxford’s Cowley Road where I bought most of my recreational reading. I devoured crime fiction in all shapes and forms, but I’d never read anything quite like this.
Inspector Reg Wexford wasn’t an aristocrat or a brilliant Oxbridge wit. He didn’t inhabit rarefied social circles or drive a Bentley. He wasn’t the idiot foil to some brilliant amateur. He was a decent bloke with a wife and grown-up daughters who struggled to make sense of the things we do to each other. He was blessed with intelligence and common sense but he was as flawed as the rest of us and he felt like someone you might meet in your local pub.
But it wasn’t simply that Ruth had created a cast of characters who felt rooted in reality. She also wrote about human relationships in a way that no other crime writer was doing then. The hinge on which From Doon With Death turns is lesbian love. Not coyly hinted at, as had been the way previously, but dealt with head-on in the most matter-of-fact manner. It was the first time I’d read a mainstream novel that made me feel fiction could embrace all of who I was without making a big deal of it.
The classic Rendell hallmarks were all there from the beginning – the sense of place, the delicate filleting of the characters’ psyches, the avoidance of the prosaic both in character and in motivation.
Right from the start, Ruth also demonstrated a keen fascination with the collision between society and the individual, particularly where circumstances drive the individual to behaviour that society regards as somehow abnormal. Stable structures had only limited interest to her as a novelist; what set her creativity flowing was the point where things start to fall apart, and that was where Ruth excelled. Never content with mere description, she illuminated the human condition in all its obsessive complexity in a style that was invariably clear and compelling. She took time and trouble with her prose, reading it back to herself out loud, and her meticulousness shows.
Her politics too were a key aspect of her writing. The reason she was a baroness was not simply because she was distinguished in her field. She was a lifelong Labour supporter, committed actively to equality and humanitarian causes. Those political concerns found their way into her work, demonstrating the particular ability of the crime novel to engage with social issues because its cast of characters is drawn from so many strata of society.
But Ruth didn’t deal with politics in a tub-thumping, special pleading sort of way. She was far too subtle a novelist for that. Because she was a political animal, because these were her concerns in her own life, they inevitably emerge in her work, implicated in the darkness.
Perhaps one of the key reasons for the sustained quality of the Wexford novels is Ruth’s habit of variety. From the beginning of her career, she made it plain that she would not be pigeonholed into writing one kind of novel only. Her second novel, To Fear a Painted Devil, was a standalone with its roots in the classic English mystery. However, it bloomed into something very different under her care, giving us the first real hint of her skills as an anatomist of the abnormal human psyche.
As if it wasn’t enough to write a successful series regularly interspersed with non-series novels, in 1986, Ruth reinvented herself as Barbara Vine. These novels of psychological suspense have the recurring theme of the long shadows cast by the past. In the Vine novels, the sense of place is even stronger than in the Rendells, sometimes assuming as much importance as the characters themselves. The Vines are themselves a significant body of work, revealing us to ourselves, negotiating the journey between past and present, between who we really are and who we present to the world.
This variety of outlets for her talent meant Ruth reduced the likelihood of becoming bored with her Kingsmarkham characters, bringing fresh interest to each Wexford chronicle. It also means she was never frustrated by the very real constraints that series writing imposes. When her imagination presented her with a story that clearly couldn’t be forced into the Wexford mould, that needed more scope and depth than the psychological Rendells offered, she gave herself the means to maximise its potential in another form.
If she had written nothing but the Barbara Vine novels, I believe Ruth would be regarded in a different light. She’d have been seen more in the terms offered to the likes of Kate Atkinson and John Banville – serious writers of fiction who can also turn their hands to the stylistic possibilities of genre. She’d have been on the shortlist for the Booker and the Women’s Prize and all those other awards that turn their face against genres other than literary fiction.
But once a crime writer, always a crime writer. There’s no shame in that, of course. We take as much pride in our work as anyone else. Ruth brought both pleasure and insight to millions of readers over the years, after all.
We still have the books, of course. What we’ve lost is the woman at the heart of them. Her shrewd assessments of herself and of others were always refreshing; her company always stimulating. One of the abiding memories I have of her is from the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in the summer of 2013, in Harrogate. We had given her the festival’s award for outstanding contribution to crime writing at the opening ceremony the previous evening, and Ruth had just appeared on stage in conversation with her dear friend Jeanette Winterson.
It had been a remarkable session – revelatory, irreverent, funny, generous and packed with nuggets of information about her practice as a writer. And afterwards, we sat on the lawn in the sun, talking and laughing about books and cats and mutual friends. Ruth wasn’t a sentimental person so I’m not going to say more about it than this: today, in the grey and windy cold, I’m glad I had that morning in the sunshine.