The writing of a single story, in any form, is an accomplishment. The development of a novel is a writ that is beyond most. To have that novel published is a seminal moment in a life. I wonder therefore what it must be like to have this experience occur over and over again. Where the majority of writers can only dream of going others tread on a regular basis. Today, I’d like to pause to reflect on one who has won more awards than most people have written books, and written more books than many have actually read. This year, her first and most famous literary creation, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford reached the literary age of 50. A remarkable achievement that comes from the pen of one of England’s, and crime fiction’s, greatest ever contributors, Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE.
Ruth Rendell has been writing crime fiction for 50 years and I had the great fortune to be in her presence last month at a talk she gave on Wexford as a character, on her life and her work. She said many extraordinary things, but this will live with me for a long time, I don’t have the time to write more than one book a year. Ruth Rendell is 84. Despite her protestations, the scale of her output is one that few can match. In fact, even reading all her work is an accomplishment. Her most recent novel, The Girl Next Door (2014) is her 65th. She has had her work translated into over 35 languages and has sold more than 20 million books. Just think about that for a moment. She has researched, drafted, written and published 65 novels in 50 years. That is not just a different league, it is a different sport. When asked about this she replied, the business of making things up is central to me.
The basis for the talk was to celebrate 50 years in crime fiction, and since Wexford was her first protagonist much of what she said was devoted to him. I have spoken about the Mark Dewar characters on many occasions, and I have been lucky enough to listen to other writers do the same. Rarely though, have I heard a writer do so with such staggering candour. According to Rendell, she wasn’t particularly fond of the character at first. He made his first appearance in her debut novel From Doon With Death (1964) and in the beginning she never had a real sense that he was particularly important to her. It was only over time, as he grew, as her literary journey developed that she formed a real bond. Over time she has made the character more literate, more liberal. Perhaps even more thoughtful and sensitive. Her output in the 1970s and 80s was extensive and the cultural backdrop of that era helped to changed both Wexford as a character and Rendell’s view of him. Over time he became easier to live with. Utterly matter-of-fact.
Despite retiring as a sprightly old age of 80-something Wexford reappeared as recently as 2013 in his 24th novel No Man’s Nightingale. The audience listening to her speak in the City of London last month was very mixed. Some were new to her work, others had grown up, and then old with it. Some told her that they delighted in the fact that their own views had changed in line with Wexford’s and that their familiarity with the character was a source of great comfort to them. That chimed with Rendell’s own views on how she came to live with Wexford. In return, she revealed some of the secrets of his more extreme fans. One of them wrote to her to ask if she could kill off Wexford’s wife so that the fan could marry the character. I wondered at the time if she’d ever used these examples as inspiration for her other work. I say this because in addition to the vast canon published under her own name, Rendell has also written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine where she explores deeply psychological issues. The Vine stable is home to one of my all-time favourite crime fiction novels. Published in 1987 A Fatal Inversion won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award and was adapted to stunning effect by the BBC in 1992.
Her work has been warmly received by both the Crime Writers Association and the Mystery Writers of America, collecting the top awards from both, and meeting her as a fan and a writer was a delight. She came across as uncompromisingly honest about both her work and the industry. She has categorically eschewed the type of violence that you might expect to find in modern crime fiction stories and has focused instead on exploring what drives people to commit murder. I got the very real sense that I was in the presence of a writer, completely at ease with her work, unconcerned by past mistakes, and confident in her ability to produce stories that would be read and enjoyed. Yet she also knows that she can take nothing for granted. Her last comment was this,
Readers are fickle. And why shouldn’t they be? They want to read good things.
Remarkable. Brilliant. Ruth Rendell.