Ruth Rendell (REHN-duhl) was born Ruth Barbara Grasemann, the only child of a Swedish mother and an English father, both schoolteachers in London. Her early years appear to have been lonely and reflective. Having discovered a talent for writing in childhood, her first work was as a journalist. Following that trade, she met and married, twice, Donald Rendell, a political reporter. Their son, Simon, eventually became a sociologist and settled in the United States. After working in London, the Rendells in later years made their primary home in a sixteenth century manor house in Suffolk. Ruth Rendell’s love for this region was evident in the picture book she produced with photographer Paul Bowden, which celebrates the beauty, the mystery, and the ghosts of Suffolk.
Never a reclusive writer, Rendell frequently gave interviews, yet she remained reticent about her personal life. Politically active, she espoused nuclear disarmament and worked to improve public libraries and transportation. In 1997, after the Labor government awarded her a seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, she became a working member of Parliament. Discovering a talent for public speaking, she made frequent trips to the United States, where she had a huge readership.
Rendell never aspired to be the literary heir to Dorothy L. Sayers or Agatha Christie, the first ladies of British detective fiction. Rather, her first novel, From Doon with Death, was conceived as straight fiction, until she discovered that its chances of publication were much improved if reshaped as detective narrative. Thus, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was born. In subsequent books Wexford’s personality acquired dimension and complexity. Lacking the eccentric brilliance of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot and free from the glib snobbishness of Lord Peter Wimsey, famed literary detectives preceding him, Wexford solved his cases through steady police work and keen observation of human behavior. While most earlier investigators had been loners–spinsters and bachelors have seemed especially adept at literary detection–Wexford had a wife and two daughters. He experienced family rivalries, struggled with health problems, and battled personal demons. As Wexford solved crime after crime, Rendell proved she could concoct detective puzzles as skillfully as Christie or Sayers, and her books never degenerated into formula fiction. In them, believable personalities confronted the genuine problems of society. Emotional attachments, frequently culminating in crimes of passion, ignored distinctions of gender, race, and class.
Though the Wexford books remained Rendell’s best-sellers, two other categories of her fiction pleased the professional reviewers more. A second group published under the Rendell name was composed of psychological crime stories, without the details of police procedure. Some readers complained that these plots lacked closure; not all crimes were punished to the extent of the law. Behavior was complex, often only dimly understood, while ethical situations were always ambiguous. Echoes of Rendell’s favorite authors–Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and her friend and contemporary P. D. James–were easily identified. Rendell’s interest in Freudian and Jungian psychology was evident, as was a compassion even for criminals that was reminiscent of Russian master novelist Feodor Dostoevsky. Rendell’s achievement was, in the judgment of some professional critics, the raising of crime fiction almost to the status of tragedy.
The third category consisted of the lengthy books issued under the name of Barbara Vine, not really a nom de plume but the identification of a different literary persona, more feminine, according to Rendell, and more poetic. Vine had been the name of Rendell’s paternal great-grandmother. In the Vine books, vivid characters were haunted by mentally induced ghosts from their past and were led inexorably to their destinies. On the first page the reader might learn that an important person has been hanged or that another is soon to die. Ambiance was especially important to these books, as to all Rendell’s writing. Though at home in the elegant country houses and wind-swept moors so loved by British mystery writers, Rendell was equally familiar with dark London streets, basement flats, the London metro system, and the city’s network of rooftops.
From the beginning, Rendell was a prolific writer who, nevertheless, managed consistently to maintain a high literary standard. It is even more remarkable that her writing was produced in the midst of a busy private and public life. Like her colleagues Dorothy L. Sayers and P. D. James, she maintained an active affiliation with the Church of England, though she valued the Church’s ethical teachings and liturgical graciousness more than its theology. Less conservative than Sayers and James, social problems remained her central preoccupation in both her life and writing. Never prostituting her art in order to preach a message, several of her books did make effective use of contemporary issues as backdrop. Road Rage dealt with environmental activism; An Unkindness of Ravensroused the condemnation of Ms., the leading American feminist periodical, for its moderate approach to feminism. Harm Done treated domestic violence, while Simisola featured the plight of “foreign workers,” an increasing European preoccupation at the time of its publication. A Judgment in Stone, which many regard as Rendell’s masterpiece, begins with the sentence: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
Well into her seventh decade, Rendell maintained a full schedule of writing, travel, lecturing, and activism. By that time, she had earned every major award in her field, along with an international readership in twenty-two languages. Masters of the international cinema, including famed directors Claude Chabrol of France and Pedro Almodovar of Spain, had adapted her work to their own artistic media. Literary critics had generally designated Rendell an artist who transcends the previous limits of the crime and suspense genres.