Josna Rege

330. Ruth Rendell: Dead-On

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, reading, Stories, writing on May 9, 2015 at 10:15 am
Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

I’m not a murder-mystery hound like my father-in-law, who has read most of the works of most of the major British practitioners of this genre, some of them several times; because, as he says, he soon conveniently forgets who dunnit and can read them all over again. But on May the second, when I heard of the prolific and highly respected mystery writer Ruth Rendell’s death at age 85, I felt a great disturbance in the Force: Inspector Wexford was no more.

I felt sad, too. Although I never took to Barbara Vine, the alias Ruth Rendell created for her twisted psychological thrillers, I have a special fondness for the domestic common-or-garden mysteries that Inspector Reg Wexford of Kingsmarkham, Sussex and his deputy, Mike Burden, have been solving every other year for the past half-century. Ruth Rendell wrote 24 Inspector Wexford novels between 1964 and 2013 (you can see a list of them here), and I’ve read just about all of them, my father-in-law passing each one on to me as he finishes it.

What draws me to these quintessentially English novels in a quintessentially English genre? Although I enjoyed Miss Marple mysteries in my youth, St. Mary Mead was too twee after a while, and Agatha Christie’s snobbery and social conservatism annoyed me. (Here’s a piece by Lakshmi Kannan on the racism in Christie’s works.) But although the market town of Kingsmarkham is a place I wouldn’t want to live in a million years, I feel very differently about it than I do about St. Mary Mead. Although the middle-aged Chief Inspector Wexford loves his roast and his pint at the Olive and Dove (or did do, before his hated health regimen), is loth to walk when he could drive, and leaves the running of the home entirely to his wife Dora, everything about him is delightful, to women as well as to men, and I’m no exception. Why? It’s because of the quality of Rendell’s writing, her politics, and her broad, humane worldview.

UnknownSpanning 50 years of British life as they do, the Wexford novels document a changing Britain with interest and without nostalgia—or without too much nostalgia, at any rate). From Doon with Death (1964), the first of the series and her debut novel, shows a dreary postwar Britain, with its genteel poverty, the insufferable arrogance of old money, the absence of central heating (except for the daring and the spendthrift), and above all, an obsession with keeping up appearances. But beneath that veneer of respectability seethe suppressed passions that frequently bubble up and over, even—perhaps especially—in the suburbs. Over the years Inspector Wexford and Mike Burden, both happily married family men, deal with youth culture, immigrants and racism, gentrification and class conflict, unemployment, sexism and feminism, homosexuality, and above all, dysfunctional families—as they affect not only Kingsmarkham, but their own personal lives. While his prudish deputy has a horror of change and social aberration, the perennially middle-aged Wexford accepts and engages with it. He remains deeply humane, open-minded and liberal throughout, and at the same time, comfortingly conservative in his personal tastes, though never politically so.

Here’s a character in From Doon with Death speaking, in an interview with Wexford, on the dreams and disillusionments of women in the 1950s and early 1960s:


‘We used to talk about . . .well, about our dreams, what we wanted to do, what we were going to make of our lives’ . . .

She whispered savagely, as if she had forgotten he was there: ‘I wanted to act! They wouldn’t let me, my father and my mother. They made me stay at home and it all went. It sort of dissolved into nothing.‘

‘I met Pete,’ she said, ‘and we got married.’ Her nose wrinkled. ‘The story of my life.’

‘You can’t have everything,’ Wexford said.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I wasn’t the only one. . .’ (109, Black Dagger Crime ed., 1978)

From that very first novel Rendell was both of her time and considerably ahead of it in her choice of subject matter and her approach to it. To say more would be a spoiler, but read it yourself: she doesn’t disappoint. The earliest reviews noted that she was someone to watch but otherwise dismissed her as just another female mystery writer. They soon had to sit up and take notice.

Ruth Rendel 28 July 1986

The novels are literary without being pretentious and without departing from the straightforward conventions of the police procedural. Loved and admired by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeanette Winterson, Ruth Rendell never went to university, but she was tremendously well read, as was her creation, Reg Wexford. The epigraph of every chapter of From Doon with Death is an quote from a 19th-century poet, including, among others, the usual (male) suspects like Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson, and the free-spirited Walt Whitman, the Orientalist Sir Edwin Arnold (author of The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial, a poetic rendering of the Bhagavad-gita), Mary Coleridge (the great grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), the romantic and unconventional Christina Rossetti, the feminist Caroline Norton, and Coventry Patmore, most famously the author of The Angel in the House, the ideal Woman of the Victorian era.

But mere name-dropping doesn’t begin to capture the way Rendell uses her frequent literary quotations and allusions. She weaves them cleverly into the plot so that they lead right into the heart of the mystery. To take just one example in From Doon with Death, a suspect’s characterization of young love as “rather like ‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame’” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 129). Though the source is not identified in the novel, Wexford recognizes it, and registers a dissonant note, because the sonnet is not speaking of love, but of lust. Why has the suspect, who, we learn, earned distinction in this subject in her Higher School Certificate exams (we still called them HSC in 1960’s India), willfully chosen to misinterpret it?

9780099588542To the last, Ruth Rendell was engaged with a changing Britain. She was a liberal campaigner in the House of Lords (while her fellow mystery-writer, P. D. James, was a political conservative). She was always a spokesperson for the outsider, whether that outsider was a woman, an immigrant, or a member of the increasingly displaced poor and middle classes in a free-market Britain where the benevolent Welfare State was being dismantled. Even in her very first novel, this perspective comes through loud and clear. When Chief Inspector Wexford goes to interview a couple in which the husband has married into Old Money, he is treated like a tradesman who ought to have come to the back door. In the course of the interview, the wife speaks dismissively of someone she went to school with as,

‘a typist or a clerk or something.’

Just another of the hoi-polloi, Wexford thought, the despised majority, the bottom seventy-five per cent.

The only updating this thought would require today is that the number seventy-five would have to be increased to ninety-nine.

Rest In Peace, Ruth Rendell. You were always dead-on.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Hi Josna
    I too – without knowing nearly so much about it as you do – felt both wistful and sad when I heard about the death of Ruth Rendell. I was only glad to hear that she did not ‘survive’ her severe stroke, to go on to ‘life’ as a severely disabled individual.
    I am a constant watcher of crime genre dramas – including Wexford – and was moved by, and respectful of, the humanity imparted by the detective on TV. And watching these, I did assume that the attitude conveyed – the constant fight for justice tempered with mercy – was an attitude which came from Rendell herself.

    • Well said, E: justice tempered with mercy. I’m reading one from the early 70’s now, and the narrator tells us that Wexford never becomes cynical about people–young “flower children”, for instance, living on the edge, crashing with friends in cheap bedsits, people whom some of the officers consider no better than vermin.
      Wish I could have seen the Wexford TV series; I wonder if they’ll reissue them now. Will have to look on Netflix.
      Just out of curiosity, I wonder which your favorite TV crime dramas are. Of course, it makes sense that you would like them, given Evangeline’s career in MI6. 😉

  2. Dear Jojo,What a great write-up! I am drooling to read her now! Do you want to Skype someday? This week, mornings are good.Love,Hayat

    Date: Sat, 9 May 2015 14:15:16 +0000 To:

    • Glad you’re inspired to check her out, Hayat! And yes, I’d love to Skype (at least, until we meet in person over tea). Let’s see–Thurs or Fri morning, perhaps? Not yet sure how my week is shaping up, so let’s email beforehand. Love right back to you. x J

  3. Hi Josna
    Well you are on my favourite subject: goodness versus evil, light versus darkness . . . I particularly like ‘Inspector Morse,’ ‘Endeavour,’ ‘Marple’ and ‘Vera’ (two male and two female searchers after justice). I particularly like the searing music of ‘Vera,’ so redolent of evil and its undertow. Also I love the detectives for their compassion, their mercy, and their very human weaknesses.
    I also find ‘Midsomer Murders’ to be good – although the conventional marriage between Chief Inspector Barnaby and his rather ‘grey’ wife gets on my wick!
    I am less fond of ‘Poirot’ (vanity of the character) and absolutely cannot bear – at any price – ‘Frost!’

    • I have a few to check out, then, E–thanks. My Dad watched Morse faithfully when it was on. I don’t know Endeavour or Vera, so I will look for them. Thanks for the warning about Frost! What did you think of Inspector Lynley and Prime Suspect?

  4. How did I forget ‘Prime Suspect?!.’ I was absolutely in awe of the acting ability of Helen Mirren in this part. And also of the courage that she – and all great detectives – demonstrate. I thought ‘Inspector Lynley’ was not quite of the same calibre as ‘Prime Suspect.’ The character of the detective was not so sharply drawn by the actor (whose name I forget). There is also the series ‘Inspector Gently’ (or something like that). George Gently is played by Martin Shaw opposite his younger, and far more callow, assisting sergeant. The more recent episodes have been of high quality.
    And, also, how could I forget the great Swedish drama ‘Wallander’ (the part of Kurt Wallander played by several actors over the years). Many of the detectives have an Achilles Heel. Inspector Gently has M.S.; Jane Tennison/Endeavour Morse are dogged by alcoholism, and there is considerable bathos in the depiction of Alzheimer’s seen in the latter episodes of ‘Wallander.’ ENJOY!! E

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