Veteran crime novelist Ruth Barbara Rendell is also known as Barbara Vine and the Baroness of Babergh. She has had about one book a year published since 1964. Her beloved series about the misadventures of Inspector Wexford became a popular television series starring George Baker. She was made a CBE in 1996. Even in her 80s, she is still writing and publishing about the darker side of human nature.
Although she has legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic, it is fair to ask, “Just how good of a writer is Ruth Rendell?” She’s an excellent writer who has been able to breathe new life into a rather hackneyed literary form – the murder mystery set in the British Isles.
Deeply Twisted Plots
Long before Thomas Harris began scaring readers with the tales of Hannibal Lecter, Rendell was already drawing a darkly detailed portrait of the inhuman side of humanity. Murder, torture, abuse, slavery, corruption – they can all be found in her books. The plots take precedence over the characters. The more complicated the plot, the harder it is for the reader to predict the ending. Rendell can straddle that fine line between complexity and incoherence.
The focus of her books is not on revealing who the murderer is but on how they were caught. Her early books were classic whodunnits, but after 1990 she sometimes wrote books where the killer is revealed early on. The tension then lies on how other characters narrowly miss being the next victims.
Best in Small Doses
Some of Rendell’s protagonists and villains can be staggeringly inhumane. Simisola (1994) is an excellent example. In it, Inspector Wexford uncovers girls being kept as slaves in modern day England. Even though justice is done and the baddies are caught, there is an overwhelming sense of the futility of trying to stop such a practice. Another is seen in an early Wexford book, Some Lie and Some Die (1973) where the bad guy does get away with his crime and there is nothing Wexford and his colleagues can do about it.
Reading more than two Rendell books in a row can make a reader very depressed. Her books are not escapist fantasies where justice always prevails. They are very much like real life in that bad things often happen to good people and there is nothing that can be done about it except tell others about it.