Ruth Rendell’s groundbreaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced the reader to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford, who went on to feature in twenty-four of her subsequent novels.
With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Very much abreast of her times, the Wexford books in particular often engaged with social or political issues close to her heart.
Ruth died in May 2015 – here is a piece she wrote in 2013 about her life in writing.
With more than 70 books under my belt I am often asked if my thoughts are beginning to drift towards a gentle exit from the world of letters. I always answer the same: I couldn’t do that! It’s what I do and I love doing it. It’s absolutely essential to my life. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t write.
Even Wexford, who has been solving murders and easing injustices since he made his debut in From Doon with Death, back in 1964, isn’t taking it easy. Despite having left the police force, he solved a decades-old crime in 2011’s The Vault, and he’s back once again in my new novel No Man’s Nightingale which is out next month.
I don’t get sick of Wexford because he’s me. He’s very much me. He doesn’t look like me, of course, but the way he thinks and his principles and his ideas and what he likes doing, that’s me.
Wexford’s endless war against clichés is also mine. He likes to read what I like to read – on my coffee table today is Tennyson and Anne Tyler and John Banville – and he likes the music I like, all that sort of thing. It’s not absolute. But it’s pretty close, so of course I don’t have to think too deeply about what he’ll say next because I know him so well.
Returning to Wexford isn’t easy, though. In fact, I don’t find writing easy because I do take great care, I rewrite a lot. If anything is sort of clumsy and not possible to read aloud to oneself, which I think one should do … it simply doesn’t work.
From Doon With Death, my debut novel, was picked up by Hutchinson after a decade or so of life as a mother and housewife (I had resigned from a job as a journalist on the Chigwell Times after I wrote a report of a local tennis club’s dinner without going along, thus missing the fact that the after-dinner speaker died in the middle of his speech!). Married to my former boss on the paper, Don Rendell, at the age of 20, I had a son and wrote several unpublished novels, not all of them crime. From Doon with Death was the one to land me a (£75) publishing deal.
I’m pretty sure that even if one of the non-thriller novels had been signed, I would have ended up on the same literary pathway. Suspense is my thing. I think I am able to make people want to keep turning pages. They want to know what happens. So I can do that. Mind you, I think this ought to apply to any fiction, because however brilliant it is in other respects, you don’t want to go on reading it unless it does that to you.
What is it that makes a good suspense writer? A sort of withholding I would say. I think one has to look at great fiction to sees how that is done. Think about Emma. We know there’s something strange about Jane Fairfax, but it’s not until very far on that we realise that all the time she’s been engaged to Frank Churchill. It’s done in a masterly fashion. There’s nothing clumsy about it, nothing appears to be contrived, and it’s done by simply withholding.
Next year it will be fifty years since my first novel was published. Fifty years! I’m rather pleased. I think it’s wonderful and I’ll do it until I die.