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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1079

The novels by which Ruth Rendell is best known are the Inspector Wexford series. These are set in the fictional town of Kingsmarkham, in the south of England. Wexford lives with his wife, Dora, and has two grown-up daughters. The elder of the daughters, Sylvia, along with her two daughters,...

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The novels by which Ruth Rendell is best known are the Inspector Wexford series. These are set in the fictional town of Kingsmarkham, in the south of England. Wexford lives with his wife, Dora, and has two grown-up daughters. The elder of the daughters, Sylvia, along with her two daughters, moves back home after separating from her husband. Inspector Wexford is assisted by Michael Burden. Over the course of the series, both men earn promotions. The series develops the characters of the two men and their relationship with each other. At times, their families become involved in the plots.

One of the features of all Ruth Rendell’s fiction is the use of parallel plots. At first, the plots appear unrelated, but gradually similarities emerge, and at certain crucial points, the plots actually cross. Sometimes both plots involve murder, but sometimes one plot centers on personal happenings in the lives of the two police officers in the Wexford series or other happenings in the victim’s family. There is a marked degree of literary allusion, too, and sometimes the parallelism comes from literature. For this, Wexford needs to be a well-read man, which he is.

Later Wexford novels take on more social and political issues, overlaying the psychological and personal ones. Rendell deals with racism (Simisola, 1994), feminism (An Unkindness of Ravens, 1985), and ecological issues (Road Rage, 1997), though never taking a strong political stance in any of her novels. In fact, Rendell has been labeled antifeminist by some critics. Wexford himself goes through changes, suffering a heart attack, disillusionment, and an attempted seduction. His own experiences make him more understanding of the perpetrators’ motives.

In the suspense novels, written both as Rendell and as Vine, a somewhat different scenario emerges. The police novels have a sense of order and a return to normality at their conclusions; the suspense novels have no such normative presence. Instead, perfectly normal people on the outside commit crimes of great passion and violence, often out of sexual obsessions. The novels develop an understanding of why they committed such apparently out-of-character crimes. The point of view varies, there being no central organizing police consciousness: Sometimes it is of the perpetrator, sometimes objective, sometimes multiple. Rendell is willing to leave many of her novels open-ended; others have a circular form.

From Doon with Death

From Doon with Death (1964) was the first of Rendell’s novels to be published and the first of more than twenty Inspector Wexford books. The murder victim is a very ordinary former schoolteacher, Margaret (“Minna”) Parsons, married to an equally ordinary husband. Rendell shows that in the past of even the most ordinary person can lie great passion, here revealed as the lesbian passion of “Doon,” a former schoolfriend, now apparently well-married, though the marriage turns out to be sexless. At first Inspector Wexford cannot see that Doon could be a woman and gets caught up in the various adulterous relationships of the characters. Finally the discovery of old photos and letters and the correct interpretation of various literary clues and allusions lead to the correct solution. Wexford emerges as an interesting central character, though it took Rendell several more books to develop Burden and the two men’s relationship.

A Sleeping Life

In A Sleeping Life (1978), the victim is in some ways quite similar to Margaret Parsons. Rhoda Comfrey is middle-aged, unmarried, and plain. Why should anyone want to murder her? Her only acquaintance appears to be an unlikely one, a successful novelist called Grenville West. The arrival of Sylvia, Wexford’s older daughter and somewhat of a feminist, leads to a number of arguments, during one of which Wexford has to think of the possibility of women being truly successful only when disguised as men. He realizes Parsons and West are one and the same person. He goes on to find out that someone else who had fallen in love with West has made the same discovery. The murder is the result of thwarted passion, after all. Themes of appearance and reality, as well as feminist themes, mark the novel, as does Wexford’s sympathy with both the victim and the perpetrator.

The Bridesmaid

The Bridesmaid (1989) is one of Rendell’s suspense thrillers. The central characters are Philip Wardman and Senta, a beautiful schizophrenic woman. Wardman seems to be the model of respectability, living in an unmarried household composed of mother and sisters. However, Senta, in the form of a statue, becomes an embodiment of the ideal female with whom Wardman is obsessed. Senta herself is mentally sick and has already killed a former lover. She enters into a murder pact with Wardman, her part of which she fulfils. The novel closes as he realizes just what Senta has done and what he, too, has done, as they wait for their arrest. The novel explores, as do many others by Rendell, the powers of the subconscious that can no longer be contained by the outer forms of respectability.

The Keys to the Street

To some, The Keys to the Street (1996) is unsatisfactory and incomplete. To others, it is one of her most complex works, with the lack of completion a deliberate postmodern statement. It is symbolic in a Dickensian sense, in that an area of London, Regent’s Park, is taken and its various aspects symbolized as aspects of modern urban life. The interweaving paths represent the plotlines of the characters’ lives; the iron railings and gates, the exclusion and boundaries between one social class and another. The serial killing of a number of homeless men on these railings is less important than the hidden lives of those who frequent the park. One of these is Roman, who has “killed off” his former life and chosen to be a vagrant but then protects a young woman being stalked by a former abusive lover. Only the reader is aware of their real interconnectedness, again, as in a Charles Dickens novel.

A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark-Adapted Eye is the first of the Barbara Vine novels. It shows Rendell’s thesis that the past often is much more powerful than the present in determining people’s perceptions. A woman has been hanged for murdering her niece. Thirty-five years later, another niece tries to reconstruct the story as a piece of journalism. She has eyewitness statements and faded photos from which to work. The only way reality can be reconstructed is in a sort of jigsaw puzzle, as the reconstruction needs multiple viewpoints and interpretations.

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Rendell, Ruth