Ruth Rendell 1930–
English mystery novelist and short story writer.
Since the publication of her first novel, From Doon with Death, in 1964, Rendell has become one of England's most popular mystery writers. Her work features Reginald Wexford, a Scotland Yard inspector who solves homicide cases by revealing in his suspects the emotions and motivations usually overlooked by other detectives. Critics praise Rendell's realistic portrayal of Wexford, who, in each novel, is allowed to change and to grow as a human being. Her accounts of Wexford's private life are considered refreshing and entertaining subplots.
Rendell has also written several novels outside the traditional mystery genre. In such works as The Face of Trespass (1974) and A Demon in My View (1976), she combines elements of the crime novel with insightful character studies. For example, the latter is a psychological thriller about a mentally disturbed man who "strangles" store mannequins in order to repress his homicidal tendencies.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 109.)
Allen J. Hubin
Ruth Rendell's "The Best Man to Die" … is a sturdy representative of the genus Britannicus detectivus. Charlie Hatton is not well loved—except by Jack Pertree, who wants him to stand up at his wedding. The would-be best man is also too bemoneyed for a lorry driver, and the woods seem flush with suspects for Chief Inspector Wexford of the Kingsmarkham police when Charlie fatally encounters a blunt object one moonlit night. Separating the killer from the merely guilty becomes more perplexing with passing days. Added complications include a curious car accident case and a carnivorous elevator.
Allen J. Hubin, in a review of "The Best Man to Die," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 23, 1970, p. 24.
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["One Across, Two Down"] is a bleak study of what used to be known as the lower classes, done with the dispassionate air of a surgeon in an operating room. A nagging mother-in-law, living with her daughter and a rat of a son-in-law, is bound to create trouble, especially as she has some money and they do not….
Most of the people in this book are unlovely specimens, and it is hard to work up much interest in them. But Rendell is so acute an observer, and has such an ear for speech patterns, that she has created something resembling a case history. There is a horrid air of truth in "One Across, Two Down," that cements her position as an outstanding realist of the genre.
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "One Across, Two Down," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1971 by The New York Times Company, reprinted by permission), November 7, 1971, p. 26.
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The Times Literary Supplement
Ruth Rendell is really first-class, easy, natural and gemutlich in her writing, unhampered in her invention, a natural storyteller who uses crime as conveniently as the Victorian novelists used to, as a tensing part of stories about people. In [No More Dying Then], a provincial policeman has lost his wife and is suffering agonies of deprivation, and a child disappears, not the first to go in this town. Among many good characters, the creation of the destructively indolent Ivor Swan is especially worth praise.
A review of "No More Dying Then," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3644, December 31, 1971, p. 1638.
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Primarily ["Murder Being Once Done"] is a novel of police routine, traditional in its plotting, full of false clues and leads that peter out. Secondarily it is a novel of character exploration, sensitively written, full of the deft touches one comes to expect from the author of "One Across, Two Down" and "No More Dying Then."
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "Murder Being Once Done," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1972, p. 56.
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[Ruth Rendell] is a sensitive writer who is at her best in "Some Lie and Some Die."… This book enters the world of rock and pop. A body is found during a pop festival at which some 80,000 young people are in attendance. The murder, however, occurred before the start of the festival. There is not much to go on. But, slowly, the trail leads to a rock star. Clearly he is involved. But to how great an extent?
Rendell, in her quiet way, can shake mountains. Like all good writers, she has a keen insight into character. In "Some Lie and Some Die" she has created in her rock star a monster of a human being. To balance this, there is a civilized, middle-aged chief inspector who understands people and—rarer—even understands himself. At the end of the book there is the usual showdown, but even here there is a different element in the denouement. In none of her books has Rendell taken the easy way out, and she doesn't here.
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "Some Lie and Some Die," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 16, 1973, p. 18.
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The Times Literary Supplement
[The Face of Trespass] is the story of Gray, a failed writer and nearly alienated man, sick with infatuation for a corrupt, rich, married girl, whom he dare not see for fear of her terrible demands. Ruth Rendell conveys the derelict half-dream, half-nightmare life Gray is leading in an Essex hovel far better than a crime-writer need, and through this, and his sad, unsatisfied love for a dog and for his ridiculous French stepfather, makes credible the blindness that allows him to be led to total disaster—or, rather, to disaster that would have been total had it not been for the conventional crime-writer's beginning and end.
A review of "The Face of Trespass," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission). No. 3761, April, 1974. p. 375.
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A "favourite" crime or thriller writer is, to me, one the whole corpus of whose work I sit down and re-read every now and again. Next in line to the favourites—or, as I would call them, the classics—are the writers the whole oeuvre of whom I can imagine myself re-reading in five or ten years time. The essence of the character of a near-favourite is, of course, that one cannot be certain of that future pleasure: one can only hope for it….
In Ruth Rendell's Shake hands for ever … the dyspeptic Inspector Wexford is called to a curious murder scene. A much loved, but sluttish second wife is found murdered in an immaculately clean house by her implacably hostile mother-in-law. Wexford knows that the husband is the killer (I am betraying no secrets that Mrs Rendell does not give away, and there is a twist I have not revealed) but is hauled off the investigation after over-eagerness, and pursues it privately for more than a year with the aid of his superior copper son-in-law, with whom he came to terms in the last adventure….
[The book is not vintage, but it is gripping.] Mrs Rendell's special gift is for tying the stubborn and intuitive personality of Wexford into the fascinating detail of the best romans policier…. In the new Rendell, Wexford is not quite deep enough a personality for the obsessiveness of the Simenon novels—which is needed—to come across; but to Simenon she must now be...
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For most writers, the compulsive stranger would be the centre of only a deliberately nasty book. For Ruth Rendell, he, like her previous misfits, is part of a larger life where health surges but needs defence. The setting of A Demon in my View is very prettily made: a North London lodging-house where everyone is waiting hopefully for life to change, except for the strangler, who hopes only that the girl waiting in the cellar will go on being ready to die and save him from seeking new victims. (p. 29)
Marghanita Laski, "Good Crimes" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Marghanita Laski), in The Listener, Vol. 96, No. 2465, July 8, 1976, pp. 29-30.∗
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T. J. Binyon
[A Demon in My View] is set in the seedy, rundown west London suburb of Kenbourne Vale. The large Victorian houses on streets and terraces which bear the names of Oxford colleges have been converted into flats and bedsitters; some have been demolished, others boarded up…. Into a room on the ground floor of 142 Trinity Road moves Anthony Johnson, who is writing a thesis entitled, "Some Aspects of the Psychopathic Personality"; in an immaculately clean flat on the top floor lives Arthur Johnson, a psychopath who has in the past strangled two young girls: almost too neat a juxtaposition, but in the event justified by its successful handling. The paths of the two Johnsons intertwine; a series of minor, seemingly insignificant events drives Arthur, once more, towards murder. A deeply satisfying and subtly ironic plot, and a good, depressing picture of west London.
T. J. Binyon, in a review of "A Demon in My View," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3890. October 1, 1976, p. 1260.
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T. J. Binyon
Although most of the eleven stories in Ruth Rendell's new collection [The Fallen Curtain] have a crime as their subject, its detection is not the object in any of them. Instead she sets out to create a mood—ranging from the domestic to the mildly macabre—and then suddenly, in the last few pages, whisks away the veil to reveal a situation which startles the reader as much as the characters. The method could become mechanical, but it is never so here: each story has its own individual and different jolt. The best are "A Bad Heart", which works the method in reverse, and "The Vinegar Mother", a child's-eye view of adult intrigue.
T. J. Binyon, "Criminal Proceedings," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3896, November 12, 1976, p. 1437.∗
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From the beginning [of "A Judgement in Stone"] we know the details of a multiple murder and who was responsible. But Miss Rendell is a master at bringing horror to ordinary situations. She takes an illiterate housekeeper—really illiterate—with a shady past, puts her into a nice family, then starts applying pressure. The way Miss Rendell gets into the woman's mind is a tour de force. Little by little a chip is added, with well-meaning people contributing to their own doom. This is one of Ruth Rendell's best.
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "A Judgement in Stone," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1978, p. 34.
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Jane S. Bakerman
Ruth Rendell is hailed by her publishers as "The New First Lady of Mystery." The fact is that, publishers' enthusiasm aside, Rendell is worth serious critical attention because she has not only created a series of ingenious and clever plots, but has, above all, explored human nature effectively and with genuine insight.
The appeal of the Rendell novels is diversified and full; she uses such interest-generating devices as social criticism, brief comments upon the detective story, and short but striking glimpses of setting (the base of operations is a town called Kingsmarkham in Sussex) to lend depth and strength to her stories. Other elements of style—foreshadowing, simile, metaphor, dialogue, and irony, for instance—are equally well handled, lifting the works above the level of much detective fiction.
Perhaps her most useful device is her treatment of the characterizations of Chief Detective Inspector Reg Wexford and his aide, Detective Inspector Mike Burden. The friendship between the two men is a workable device for maintaining continuity, and the character of Wexford, himself, is developed in such a way as to provide a sane and solid framework of understanding and compassion for her real center of interest: a varied and compelling examination of friendship and love—and their too frequent companion, selfishness. These explorations of two of the most powerful of human relationships are readily perceivable in...
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The appearance of any novel by Ruth Rendell is a cause for celebration. But I am particularly pleased by A Sleeping Life … because it sees the return of Chief Inspector Wexford, investigating, this time, the unfathomable death of an apparently respectable, well-heeled, middle-aged woman who appears, once the investigation has begun, to have had no past and, indeed, no existence. The resolution is a little disappointing and rather obvious (the same trick was used years ago by Josephine Tey in To Love And Be Wise …) but that, to me, is little when weighed against the greater humour and humanity that Wexford produces in his creator: I can do with a rest from Mrs Rendell's grimmer (though brilliant) recent forays into criminal psychopathology.
Patrick Cosgrave, in a review of "A Sleeping Life," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7833, August 19, 1978, p. 22.
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[In "Make Death Love Me"], ordinary, middle-class people do an unusual thing once in their lives. Miss Rendell gives us a bank clerk, a milquetoast type, poor, with an unlovely family and, withal, a yen to lead a life of romance. The poor guy actually reads poetry and has a private interior life of his own. He is on hand when two punks rob his bank, and in the ensuing excitement he skips away with £3000. It is not a big sum but then the clerk is not asking for much from life.
Miss Rendell is an ironist. There is no free will. Men are puppets manipulated by outside forces, and as often as not the only reward in life is a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. There is a concurrent story in "Make Death Love Me," and the two stories, of course, mesh at the end, to the grief of most of the characters…. Miss Rendell is extremely skillful at this kind of psychological suspense story, and while she never forgets the genre in which she is writing (her plotting almost always is very ingenious), there also are strong novelistic aspects to her work.
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "Make Death Love Me," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1979, p. 26.
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Miss Rendell, a prolific writer, usually centers her books on commonplace people who find themselves in unusual situations. But the five short stories in "Means of Evil" are in the traditional British mainstream. Yet, competent as they are, they lack the special quality that Miss Rendell is able to get in her full-length novels. There is something gray about the writing; characters are not developed; even Wexford seems a stereotype. Short mysteries take a certain kind of explosive quality that is missing from the skillful Miss Rendell's arsenal. (pp. 30-1)
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "Means of Evil," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). February 24, 1980, pp. 30-1.
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Ruth Rendell is as English as Simenon is French. In The Lake of Darkness … she does not make the mistake of attempting to cross the cultural borders. Instead of playing spot-the-murderer as in the traditional detective novel, the excitement and tension of her story derive, as with Patricia Highsmith, probably the most notable exponent of this form of thriller, from spotting the victim and watching as disparate strands come together to make an unexpectedly terrible combustion resulting in death…. The killer of the story is a very enjoyable creation; a young man who as a teenager caused poltergeistly manifestations and as an adult is able to levitate, while meditating, to the ceiling. Miss Rendell writes particularly well and I have not often enjoyed a thriller more than this well-constructed and deftly executed story.
Harriet Waugh, in a review of "The Lake of Darkness," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7926, June 7, 1980, p. 21.
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Ruth Rendell is at it again in "The Lake of Darkness."… As in so many of her books, this one concerns middle-class Londoners faced with unusual situations, coping as well as they can….
Many of Miss Rendell's books have an O. Henry ending, with an unexpected twist. But where O. Henry was always light-hearted, Miss Rendell is grim, and "The Lake of Darkness" ends with a combination of irony and horror. Her writing style is muted, purposely so, and that makes the extraordinary situations all the more biting. She has worked out a special field for herself, and she continues to pursue it with ingenuity.
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The Lake of Darkness," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1980, p. 26.
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With twenty-two books written over eighteen years, Ruth Rendell has established a double eminence in two separate categories of crime fiction: the classic puzzle, with a stable background and a recurring cast headed by a mildly eccentric detective and his more conventional subordinate; and the novel of pure suspense, in which a blundering innocent and a haunted psychopath become fatally entangled in a paranoid atmosphere of cross purposes and sinister coincidence. In both fields success is difficult, but for opposite reasons: the first has been so thoroughly mined, by a brilliant team stretching from Agatha Christie to P. D. James, that its resources are in danger of being exhausted; and the second, pioneered by the lone figure of Patricia Highsmith, is all the more daunting because comparatively unexplored. Combining a masterly grasp of plot construction with a highly developed faculty for social observation, Ruth Rendell's remarkable talent has been able to accommodate the rigid rules of the reassuring mystery story (where a superficial logic conceals a basic fantasy) as well as the wider range of the disturbing psychological thriller (where an appearance of nightmare overlays a scrupulous realism)….
Put On By Cunning continues the chronicles of Kingsmarkham, that murder-prone Sussex village protected by Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden, as neatly paired a couple in their way as the two Ronnies. When first met in...
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Ruth Rendell's new detective novel Put on by Cunning [is very pleasurable to read]. She is England's premier detective-thriller writer…. She excels in both fields, although personally I think her thrillers have individual standing that her highly accomplished detective fiction lacks.
Chief Inspector Wexford, Miss Rendell's familiar detective, is drawn into a case of accidental death when aged widower, Sir Manuel Camargue, a great flautist, dies ostensibly from falling into his pond one snowy night shortly before he is to marry a girl 50 years his junior. Foul play is not suspected by anyone except the bereaved fiancée. However, Wexford begins to think that the flautist's long estranged daughter might be other than what she seems and finds her repellently attractive. His superiors think he is wrong-headed and obsessive but Wexford bloodhounds his way out to California in the quest for truth. There is a marvellous surprise twist three-quarters of the way through involving an unexpected death that turn everything on its head. Although Miss Rendell does not cheat on the plotting—the clues are present to be picked up if you can (I could not)—there was little satisfaction for this reader in the identity of the murderer when unmasked.
Harriet Waugh, in a review of "Put On by Cunning," in The Spectator (© 1981 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator),...
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Crime novels, once a name is established, should be a dream to sell as, on the whole, the writers are an unusually consistent bunch. A reader approaching that section in a shop can put out a confident hand to a familiar name…. The quality of the book may vary a little within the oeuvre of a writer but the kind of crime and the style of the novel rarely do. Ruth Rendell, however, is an exception to this rule because there is Ruth Rendell the detective writer and Ruth Rendell the psychological thriller writer, and there is no relationship between the two. I am pleased to announce that her new novel, Master of the Moor, is one of the latter.
The story opens with our central character, Stephen Whalby, finding the body of a strangled girl with a shorn head on his beloved Vangmoor. The moor is part of a group of bleak hills dominated by a warren of disused mines. Stephen, a good-looking man of 30, with a pretty, nervous wife and a melancholia-ridden father, still inhabits the emotional and physical world of his childhood. In that world he was King of Vangmoor. When the moor delivers up a second victim the police's attention fixes on him.
Although I was never in much doubt as to who the murderer was, the author is less interested in that aspect than in the effect of the killings on Stephen. There are two excellent, macabre twists in the tale, although the final confrontation, which the reader awaits with some...
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