A Ruth Rendell retrospective, Part One

October 7, 2011 at 2:02 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

My first thought upon arriving home after the Tuesday night meeting of the Usual Suspects was, I’m exhausted.

My second thought, upon waking up the following morning at five AM with a splitting headache was, I’ve had a bracing lesson in humility!

In all honesty, it’s a lesson I needed to get. Assuming that everyone else will love an author or a work of literature with the same fervor that you do is certainly born of hubris of the highest order.

A bit of background: Marge and I had the idea of presenting a survey of Ruth Rendell’s body of work (excepting the novels of Barbara Vine, just to narrow things down a bit on this particular occasion). Since Rendell has been so prolific, we decided to do our presentation in two parts, beginning with the Wexford novels.

Ruth Rendell

Marge kicked off the proceedings by providing the background for Rendell’s life and work. Born Ruth Barbara Grasemann in 1930, she was an only child. Her parents, both teachers, were unhappily married and fought frequently. In her book Women of Mystery, Martha Hailey DuBose quotes Rendell to the effect that this stressful home life imbued her “…from a very early age with a sense of doom.”

After graduating from Loughton County High School, she began her working life as a journalist. In 1950, she married her boss at the paper, Don Rendell. Two years later, her journalism career abruptly terminated. Various reasons have been given for this sudden cessation. She may have decided that she wanted to focus on her son Simon, born in 1953. There exists, however, the possibility of a rather more colorful scenario.  Martha Hailey DuBose begins her chapter on Ruth Rendell thus:

There is a story often told about Ruth Rendell…about the time when, asa journalist, she was assigned to cover the annual dinner of a local tennis club. Like many a newspaper reporter faced with a deadline and yet another predictable social event, she wrote her story from the advance copy of the guest speaker’s text. What Ruth didn’t know was that the speaker  had dropped dead in the middle of her speech. The reporter turned in her resignation the next day.

All this time, Rendell had been writing short stories and sending them off to various magazines, only to have them returned unpublished. She began experimenting with longer forms in various genres, including historical fiction, family sagas, and detective novels. Finally in 1964, From Doon with Death, the first Wexford novel was accepted for publication. It launched her career as a writer of crime fiction. Since then, she has been both prolific and successful, winning numerous awards and having her work adapted for television programs and feature films.

I should explain first how Marge and I set up this two part discussion. Some weeks prior to Tuesday night, we distributed the following list:


Psychological suspense (non-series):

Judgement in Stone – We believe that this novel is going to achieve classic status. Rendell did something incredibly audacious by giving the plot away in the opening sentence. Despite this, the sense of accumulating dread as you read is almost excruciating. (Understandably, some readers find themselves too unnerved by the scenario created by the author.)

Crocodile Bird – I just revisited this book on audio & found myself wanting to discuss with someone – anyone! Could a woman such as Eve actually exist? Could she raise a child in such a restricted (though physically attractive) environment, in this day and age (late 1980s)? This is also one of those novels that leaves you speculating as to what will happen, beyond the narrative’s actual conclusion.

Keys to the Street – A favorite with both of us, though not read recently by either. We both recall the novel featuring at least one rather scary character – and one vulnerable young woman.

Tigerlily’s Orchids – Rendell’s latest, and a triumph, in our view. Also distinctly less scary than some of the other psychological suspense titles. Evocative & beautifully written Tigerlily’s Orchids rather surprisingly contains the most unsparing, devastating portrayal of end stage alcoholism that I have ever encountered in a work of fiction.

The Water’s Lovely – Did Heather Sealand drown her stepfather? She seems such an unlikely murderess. And yet…

Wexford novels

Simisola – Rendell tackles the tricky subject of racial prejudice in this compelling tale of a young woman of African heritage who goes missing from her home. Her parents are health care professionals; in fact, her father is Wexford’s primary care physician.

Road Rage– In Kingsmarkham, anger boils over at the prospect of a new highway cutting through s beloved landscape.  As tensions escalate, the case becomes personal for Chief Inspector Wexford.

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter – This novel opens with a shocking  scene of violence. Yes, it’s disturbing, but it is also very compelling.  The plot is snaky and devious, and I’d be interested to know if you suspect the culprit before that person’s true identity is revealed.

End in Tears – Several young women have been making frequent trips to Frankfurt, Germany. Wexford must find out the purpose of these journeys in order to solve a string of bizarre and terrible crimes.

From Doon with Death – Published in 1964, this is the first Wexford novel. Reading it gives you the chance to see how the detective’s character – and his creator’s style –  have evolved over the years.

We asked that group members read one from each of the two groups. We would discuss the Wexford series first; the second session would be devoted to the non-series novels.

From Doon with Death (1964) seemed like the natural place to start our discussion of the Wexford books. Several people had read it. The consensus was that it was a pleasant enough read, but not exceptional – in other words, fairly standard fare for a police procedural. Even a bit ho hum.

I did not quite agree with this assessment. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My library copy is sitting in front of me, festooned with post-it flags. I especially liked the depiction of mid-sixties small town Britain. (The town in question is the fictional Kingsmarkham.)

Ah, well, to each his or her own taste….

  Next came Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992). With its shocking opening scene, vivid imagery, and cunning plot, this has long  been one of my favorite Wexford novels. Those who had read it, however, were largely negative in their assessment.

Ah well, to each his or her own….

  With Road Rage (1997), reactions were somewhat more positive. Environmental concerns dominate this novel. The “rage” in the title refers not to the anger of individual motorists but to a general outrage at a plan to build a road through a pristine wooded area on the outskirts of Kingsmarkham. I don’t have the novel in front of me and it’s been a while since I read it, so I can’t say too much more about it right now. And this points up one of the problems with a discussion of this kind; namely, that some of the material will not be fresh in the mind of the presenter. Would it have been better to have suggested a smaller number of titles? Possibly. (Comments welcome on this subject.)

At one point during the evening, Barb asked why Marge and I were allotting so much time to the work of this one author. I answered immediately that I was simply crazy about Rendell’s writing. True enough: she could describe someone walking down the street to mail a letter and I would be enthralled. Farewell to any pretense of objectivity! And that, I realize, was (and is) a big part of my problem. (Barb expressed a preference for Donna Leon. On that score, she won’t get an argument from either Marge or me: Leon is a great favorite with both of us.)

  We went on to discuss Simisola (1994). This is one of Rendell’s most explosive narratives. In it, she gives her unblinking take on racism, involuntary domestic servitude, and chronic unemployment. She depicts a society oblivious to the anguish of the poor and powerless, making halfhearted gestures of appeasement in their general direction. These disadvantaged people are seen by the majority as an undifferentiated mass. Wealthy and prominent locals are shown to be capable of shocking cruelty toward those they view as part of the underclass. Idle youths congregate on the front steps of the benefit office. One of them is Raffi Johnson. His mother Oni possesses dangerous knowledge; in a ruthless attempt at intimidation, she is beaten nearly to death. Raffi’s vigil at  her bedside speaks volumes about the goodness of his heart. (He is rewarded for this and his other good qualities in a subsequent book in the series.)

We talked about the shocking scene at the heart of Simisola in which Wexford misidentifies a homicide victim. This is just the sort of mistake that he thought he had schooled himself against. In his continuous self-examination and soul searching on the subject of attitudes toward racial differences, Wexford once again finds himself, in his own estimation, coming up short.

Marge placed  strong emphasis on Rendell’s treatment of social issues, stating that it is one of the chief reasons for holding this author in such high regard.

For me, one of the more poignant moments in crime fiction occurs at the very end of this novel. Wexford wants to make sure that his team does not think of this victim as yet another anonymous unfortunate. He stands before them and says: “Her name was Simisola.” (Thanks, Carol, for taking meticulous notes on your reading and sharing your insights with us.)

  Our final title for the evening’s consideration was End in Tears (2005). At the heart of this novel is a baby selling operation that not only ends in tears but in death as well. As usual in the fiction of Ruth Rendell, cruel ironies abound. The novel begins with a horrific car accident, deliberately caused by a saboteur, in which Mavis Ambrose, an innocent woman who is not the intended target, loses her life.

In End in Tears, we get to know DS Hannah Goldsmith, a member of Wexford’s team. She’s ambitious and highly competent. She also advocates strenuously, and at times almost irrationally, for  the rights of women. Wexford has pretty much taken her measure:

Hannah liked complex family arrangements. In her world they signified freedom of choice and self-assertiveness. A bunch of children, thought Wexford, each with a different father and some with different mothers, all living under one roof with four or five unrelated adults would be her ideal.

With her rigid ideological stance, Hannah can be a pill. At least, that’s what some who had read the book called her – and quite rightly too, I think. But she has her vulnerable points, especially regarding yet another team member.  This is DC Bal Bhattacharya. The attraction seems to be mutual, but Bal is a a slow mover. If memory serves me correctly, they’re on the outs with each other at  the end of this novel. There’s more to their story, though, in Not in the Flesh (2007), the next Wexford and one I am particularly fond of.

Marge wanted everyone to be aware of the of the ways in which the character of Wexford grows and changes in the course of this series. In From Doon with Death, he is somewhat abrupt, even at times coarse in his mode of expression. As the series developed, Rendell bestowed a family on this character. He is, in fact, one of the few series detectives with an intact and happy family life. There is some tension, though, regarding his relationship with his two daughters. Sheila, an actress, is a  free-spirited beauty, while Sylvia, who’s a social worker, can be somewhat priggish and judgmental. Because of his stronger natural affection for Sheila, Wexford feels the guilt that any parent would feel in a similar situation. He tends to overcompensate. In Babes in the Wood (2002), though, he gets a genuine opportunity, in harrowing circumstances, to show Sylvia just how much, and how unconditionally, he loves her.

In this video, made on the occasion of the publication of The Monster in the Box, Rendell talks about the way in which the character of Wexford evolved:

The relationship between Wexford and Mike Burden, his second in command, is an interesting one. As the series begins, Burden holds extremely conservative views on social issues and tends to be disapproving of those with freewheeling lifestyles. But tragedy strikes Burden early on: his beloved wife Jean, mother of his two children, dies of cancer while still quite young. He is devastated and seems to lose his way for a period of time. But Wexford supports and helps him during this crisis. Before long, Burden enters into a felicitous second marriage. Over the years, he and Wexford  become close friends as well as uniquely compatible colleagues.

So – what about the discussion? I felt that the verdict on this author was somewhat mixed. But I think some people did genuinely enjoy their selections. (At least I hope they did.) Pauline opined that while Rendell at her best can be truly outstanding, her output is somewhat uneven. She’s so prolific, this would almost inevitably have to be the case. So…why do I totally love everything I’ve ever read  by her? Because, Roberta, you are obviously not rational on this subject!

As I mentioned before, it’s challenging to run a discussion adhering to this format. I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t say that I’m a bit chagrined at the prospect of presenting Part Two of the retrospective, in which we’ll be considering Rendell’s nonseries novels of psychological suspense. Unfortunately, this feeling was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that I was already getting negative feedback on a couple of the books in the nonseries section of the list. However, I shall press on, undaunted!

I want to praise members of the Usual Suspects once more for the vigor of their minds, their great sense of humor, and their eagerness to engage in lively discourse. I noted Tuesday night that several people had already read several of the titles on the list we’d given them. I deeply appreciate that dedication.

I should add here that reports of Wexford’s death have been greatly exaggerated. However, reports of his retirement are true. In The Vault, out here just last month, Wexford is asked to assist on a baffling case, even though he is no longer officially on the force. The case in question is actually a throwback to events that occurred in A Sight for Sore Eyes. This is a non-series novel published in 1999 and featuring one of Rendell’s creepiest creations: Teddy Brex.


Suspects, I’ll see you next month, for yet another bracing session! Meanwhile, I must finish packing. We’re journeying to Chicago to celebrate, with her parents and other grandparents, the first birthday of this highly esteemed (not to mention greatly adored) little person:


  1. Shirley ONeill said,

    Roberta, Thank you for your great summation. I just finished The Vault and am so grateful that Ruth Rendell chose to continue Inspector Wexford in his retirement. I admit to being partial to her series novels, her character development is so superb it is like following the lives of distant family members. Many of her stand alone novels leave me double checking the locks and peering suspiciously at anyone out of place in my quiet neighborhood. A little too real and creepy. I cannot wait to hear what the Usual Suspects make of them!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much for your comment, Shirley. I feel the same way you do about the Wexford novels. The Vault sits on my night table; I’m eager to read it.

      There’s more to come on this wonderful author – Stay tuned!

  2. kathy d. said,

    I can’t really read these suspense stand-alones. I also find them creepy, then get scared to throw out the garbage at night — and I live right next door to the compactor!

    I’d rather read a whodunnit or more standard book, though there are thrillers I liked, like Nesbo’s Nemesis, a brilliant, complicated plot.

    I really wanted to say that your “little person” is getting more and more adorable as she gets older.

    Hope you all had a great first birthday, and that she was doted upon and adored and showered with good books.

  3. Pauline Cohen said,


    I have just finished The Vault–yes, I know I should now be reading the Rendell stand-alones for the next discussion!–but I couldn’t resist. I realize that you haven’t read The Vault yet, Roberta, but my question is: Even though this latest book stands on its own, should I now go back and re-read A Sight for Sore Eyes to gain more insight? I remember A Sight for Sore Eyes as being one of Rendell’s creepiest books and am reluctant to go back to it for that reason. I found The Vault much less creepy, I’m glad to
    report and liked it a lot. Long may Reg Wexford continue, even in retirement!

    As for choosing Ruth Rendell, to answer Barbara’s question, she is so versatile–as well as being prolific–that she has a uniqe niche in the mystery/psychological genre. There’s no one like her.

    Etta Lin is beautiful. I wish her the most wonderful birthday. Keep the photos coming!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Pauline. I’m currently on p.70 of The Vault. I just finished An Unkindness of Ravens. I too should be reading non-Wexfords but I’m not! As to your question regarding A Sight for Sore Eyes, I began recalling things from that novel as soon as I started reading The Vault. I felt a real need to have it with me but naturally it was checked out throughout the library system & so I’ve reserved it. I have to say that at this point, it appears to me that reading this latest Wexford will be a somewhat different experience for those who have not previously read A Sight for Sore Eyes. How necessary is this prior reading to a complete understanding of the events portrayed in The Vault? I cannot say yet…

      Thanks for your gracious words re Etta. I just published a post on her birthday party, which was wonderful, of course – a celebration not only of her but of children in general. What could be more worth celebrating?

  4. Kathy Ackley said,

    Hi Roberta,
    I loved your comments about Ruth Rendell, long a favorite of mine. Rich, Eleonore (the Austrian woman who went to Greenway with us), and I met her and had our picture taken for a local London paper a year or so ago. She gave a talk to a small group at a library near where she lives.
    I agree about A Judgement in Stone–a classic, stunningly well done.
    Also very much like Keys to the Street, which I used to use in my Brisith mystery lit. course–the dog walker “lived” in the same street that my husband and I lived in when we were leaders of a semester abroad program.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much for this, Kathy. Lucky you to have met this marvelous writer.

      Meanwhile, stay tuned – There’s more to come on Ruth Rendell!

  5. Philip Swan said,

    I certainly hope you’ll do a similar discussion of Rendell’s Barbara Vine novels – something happens to Rendell when she ‘becomes’ Barbara Vine – as brilliant as she is as herself, she’s even better as her ‘other’ self!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I’d like to do that, Philip. I’ve enjoyed all of the Barbara Vine titles that I’ve read. One of my next projects is to read some of the earlier ones that I never got to, like King Solomon’s Carpet, A Fatal Inversion, and A Dark Adapted Eye.

      • Kathy Ackley said,

        All three of those Vine novels are wonderful, Roberta. A Fatal Inversion is particularly well done, with a brilliant ending.

  6. Philip Swan said,

    I actually got to Rendell via Vine – I’d seen her books around for years but hadn’t gotten around to her – I remember when A DARK-ADAPTED EYE was published, and the news that Vine was Rendell (this was never a secret, actually) – at some point I want to try a new author, and bought a used copy of A DARK-ADAPTED EYE and perhaps a couple of Rendells – I started with EYE, and began reading her others – the only other Vine at the time was A FATAL INVERSION. At some point I was totally hooked on her under either name, and began working my way through her backlist as well as her newer titles. I’ve read all of the Rendells through the early 2000s at least twice, including the Wexfords, but the Vines are my favorite – some, like EYE and INVERSION, I’ve read four or five times each (also THE HOUSE OF STAIRS and THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING). One in particular, ASTA’S BOOK (ANNA’S BOOK in the US) has so captivated me that I’ve read it at least 13 times, perhaps 14. My order of preference for Rendell is: 1) The Vines; 2) the Rendell Stand-Alones, and 3) the Wexfords. Will it surprise you if I say that Ruth Rendell is my favorite writer, period? Well, except for Barbara Vine, that is . . . and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her twice!

  7. Tychy said,

    She is certainly a compelling writer, but some of the plotting is a little to be desired. The end of “Road Rage,” when it turns out that the victims have kidnapped themselves (I’m sorry, but it’s better if you learn now) was so stupid that I almost threw the book of out the window.

    “Speaker of Mandarin” – an early Wexford novel set in China (seriously) – is, however, highly recommended, and it also offers an unexpected tribute to Sheridan Le Fanu.

  8. Nan said,

    • Roberta Rood said,

      No, I didn’t. Thanks so much, Nan!

  9. Philip Swan said,

    I’ve just re-read ASTA’S BOOK for the 14th time, and re-read one of the best RR stand-alones, THE KEYS TO THE STREET – very strong characterizations in this one. I’m seeing 2011 out with a re-read of another Vine favorite, THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING.

  10. Tracey said,

    You are wonderful. Everything you write makes me feel like I’m there. Thank you.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      And what you’ve just written makes me feel that my efforts are truly worthwhile. Thank you, Tracey!

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