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May 8, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Ruth Rendell

This has been a week of big news in the mystery world. The last week of April is, every year, Edgars Week, when the Mystery Writers of America hands out its prestigious awards for some of the best books of the year. As always, this year saw some familiar and beloved names taking the trophies – (may we say congratulations, Mr. King?) and also some newcomers. The Edgars has an entire category devoted to first-time novelists, so the five writers on the shortlist are guaranteed to be unknowns – well, known to their friends and families, sure, but not to the wider reading public. The Edgars banquet, with its glitter and evening gowns (for real!) and its setting at a fancy-pants Manhattan hotel, has got to be the dandiest possible welcome for the five newbies, even for the four that don’t ultimately win. Nobody can guarantee them a career, but that Edgar nomination states clearly, in New York-neon letters, that they have earned the right to try.

That full-throated Hello is on my mind right now because this week was also the occasion of a significant Goodbye, with the death of Ruth Rendell, herself the recipient of three Edgar awards, along with a host of other prizes (including a CBE and a life-peerage; she was properly Baroness Rendell of Babergh), in a writing career that spanned more than half a century. The Web is full of passionate farewells to Rendell, appreciations of her work, and fond remembrances; I won’t intrude on what others are better placed to say. In truth, Rendell was never my writer. While I have often used “creepy” as a term of approbation – when discussing Sarah Rayne’s chillers, for example – Rendell’s brand of creepiness didn’t ring my chimes, though I read a number of her books if only to stay on top of important trends in mystery fiction. Because of this antipathy, I had to be coaxed and prodded and almost shamed into reading Anna’s Book (UK title: Asta’s Book), which Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine.

I’m so glad I gave in. Anna’s Book retains all of Rendell’s trademarks – the keen intelligence most of all, but also the quirky characters, the pinpoint settings, the plot twists – but wraps them, unusually, in sunlight. This is Rendell – and crime fiction – we’re talking about, so that sunlight is not the pure, scaldingly redemptive glare of an August afternoon. Rather, it’s a sort of dusty gold, an elegiac gilding that softens the cruelty of the story the way a sepia-toned photograph lends a beauty to even the stoniest features. I have no idea what was going on in Rendell’s life when she wrote this, if some blessing had fallen into her hands, a gift of warmth that she had never expected. But the book does read, to me, as though it’s a response to some new, fragile joy. It’s a delight. I plan to reread it this week, both as a tribute to a difficult, never compromising, ferociously intelligent writer – and as a real personal pleasure. And to follow, some of the Web’s great cache of Rendelliana.

In her own words:

Ruth Rendell reading from and discussing her last novel, The Girl Next Door, about six months ago:

Rendell speaks at a Sisters in Crime meeting on getting inside a character’s mind:

A rather fascinating discussion with Rendell about a certain Mr. Holmes…

And finally, Rendell on How to Handel a Woman (ID that paraphrase!)

And a few lovely remembrances of Rendell, by her good friend author Jeanette Winterson, and by crime writers Val McDermid and Peter Robinson.

(Ruth Rendell photo by Tim Duncan; licensed under Creative Commons, some rights reserved.)



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